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ColdFusion: Article

Search Terms Using a Reporting CFC

What Are They Looking For?

If I ran a candle shop and my visitors began to ask for blue-and-white-striped candles, you can bet I'd move whatever stock of blue-and-white-stripers I had into a prominent position, and I'd be sure that I had a good inventory of blue-and-white-striped candles on hand and on order. I would be avidly reading CSDJ (Candle Store Developer's Journal) every month, of course, and keeping abreast of market trends, for who would be fool enough to ignore what the customers themselves were asking for?

We all do the same thing with our Web sites, whether they exist for e-commerce or to provide information about a business or organization and its services and activities. I'm sure most Webmasters spend as much time as I do poring over logs and referrer reports, paying particular attention to which search terms or keywords visitors have used on Google and other search engines to arrive at their sites. The sites that I manage vary in size and in traffic, but are all of a scale such that they happily reside on the hosting company servers. I have about a dozen sites at CrystalTech, one of several hosting companies that pay particular attention to accommodating ColdFusion programmers. Such companies typically also provide a robust statistical reporting package as well as access to raw logs that allow you to do as much rooting around as you wish.

On many of my sites, there are areas with internal search facilities, employing either SQL-match searching, or, more likely, the Verity search features that are offered with ColdFusion MX. For these sites, I have created a ColdFusion Component (CFC) that collects the search terms used by visitors in my Verity search forms and generates a report of which search terms have been used, either upon request or on an automated schedule.

A Word on Verity
You'll note that I've titled the CFC discussed in this article "verityreport.cfc," even though there is nothing about the component that is inherently tied to Verity. Indeed, the component could be used entirely to track SQL searches. What my title betrays, I think, is how much I value Verity and the extent to which, when I think "search" in a ColdFusion application, I am quite likely thinking of employing Verity. That's because the features of Verity that are included with ColdFusion MX provide a range of powerful search options for CF Web sites. Developers can create index collections defined by URL paths in a domain, or defined by one or more fields in a database; searches can be made against these indices, either in isolation or in combination. The collections contain fields that allow parameters to be passed to the search results. The parameters then allow those results to display meaningful titles or summaries, as well as to include links to detail templates based on a primary key or other identifier. Plus, the search algorithm provides site visitors with an interface that is somewhat similar to what they experience in popular search engines, without requiring the programmer to supply the search logic, as would be the case with a masked SQL search.

That's already pretty inviting, but we're only describing the basics of Verity's powers in the current version of ColdFusion MX (version 6.1). The little that has been publicly discussed about what Verity may add in Blackstone is very intriguing. Macromedia ColdFusion product manager Tim Buntel's Weblog (www.buntel.com/blog/index.cfm) has suggested possibilities such as the ability to have categorized and context-driven searches and results, the ability to search within the context of a prior search, more customization, spelling suggestions for searches, and, generally, more intelligent searching.

This means that, using Blackstone, CF developers will likely be able to offer site-internal searches that are reasonably equivalent to popular search engines, which have a level of sophistication that site visitors have now come to expect. CF's powerful Verity search tool will become even more powerful and useful for site visitors.

First Things First
I mentioned that my Web site workload revolves around smaller-sized sites that reside on hosting company servers. ColdFusion Components are just as valuable for code reuse in that context as they are for developers serving multiple sites that call CFCs stored in a single directory. Write the CFC once, and drop it into the appropriately mapped directory of any hosted site that needs it. (By the way, you can get a good grounding in the principles of CFCs from the excellent series of articles Jeff Houser has recently been writing for CFDJ. Highly recommended!)

When I began writing this CFC, which I call "verityreport.cfc" (see Listing 1 - all listings for this article can be downloaded from www.sys.con.com/coldfusion/sourcec.cfm). I wanted a component that would make sense for a variety of my Web sites with search facilities. The basic functions would be (1) to collect information about which search terms site visitors used and (2) to report what those search terms were, for a given period of time. I also wanted to be able to use the CFC without much additional programming, particularly for smaller sites that might or might not have a client's administrative back end or content management system (CMS). I decided to add a presentation method that would generate and e-mail a weekly report to the appropriate parties, as well as provide ready-made reporting when a client's administrative interface does actually exist.

The first step was to create a database table to store the search terms entered by visitors (note that throughout this article, and the accompanying code listings, the database calls are for MySQL; with little or no modification, they can be made to serve other databases). I created both a field for the search term and a date/time field for the date and time when the search term was entered by a user, so that I could report the terms according to a given set of date parameters. Also, I added an auto-incremented primary key field.

I call the table "tbl_searchterms," and the three fields are "searchterm_id," "thesearchterm," and "thesearchdate."

The first method of the CFC, named "collect SearchTerm," is the one called to write a search term and the time it was called to the database. But, before we look at that, let's take a peek at my typical Application.cfm template, which sets some of the values for arguments that will be called in the CFC. The more I use custom tags and CFCs, the more each of my sites' Application.cfm templates is likely to have parameter-setting lines like this:


<CFSET request.dsn = "mydsn">
<CFSET request.dsnusername = "mydsnusername">
<CFSET request.dsnpassword = "mydsnpassword">
<CFSET request.mailto = "[email protected]">
<CFSET request.mailfrom = "[email protected]">
<CFSET request.thissite= "mysite.com">
<CFSET request.mailserver = "mail.mysite.com">

The "collectSearchTerms" method uses those request variables to call the database for the insert of the search term and the time it was called into the database and uses the variable passed in when the method was called to populate the field "thesearchterm." The date, as you can see, is drawn from the component's one line of constructor code (constructor code in a component is the code that precedes any of the individual methods' code, and may be used by one or more of the methods of the component).

This recording method is called with the following code, placed at the point in the site's search facility where the visitor's search term is collected for use against the collection (or database, if it is an SQL search rather than a Verity collection search that is being executed). The following code will typically be found on the action page that lists search results.


		<CFOBJECT 
		component="mycfcmapping.verityreport" 
		name="verityreportcfc">
		<CFINVOKE 
		component="#verityreportcfc#"
		method="collectSearchTerm">
		<CFINVOKEARGUMENT 
			name="thesearchterm"
			value="#session.keyword#">
		</CFINVOKE>

The variable "thesearchterm" can be derived from a session variable, as in this example, or from a client or other variable, as dictated by the particular methodology you use to produce a page of search results.

This simple function of the component, invoked from whatever points your site visitors are entering their search terms into, creates a database of search terms associated with the times at which they were entered.

Returning the Data
The second method, "getSearchTerms," gathers data according to the two parameters that set the date range we want our report to encompass. This method also supplies default values, drawn from the current time that we set in the constructor code, and, once again, utilizes the datasource request variables we set in the Applicaton.cfm template.

The query that is returned by this method limits the search by start and end dates (defaulting to the most recent week if no arguments are passed in for those values), and orders instances of "thesearchterm," first by the highest frequency of occurrence and then alphabetically.

It would be a simple matter to call this method, passing in dates if we wished to use a span other than the default and displaying the query results in whatever way we wished. For the manner in which I wanted to use this component, however, I didn't want to have to create any additional code in order for the component to serve its most basic use. Therefore, I created a presentation method that could run without any additional parameters having to be passed in, or could be used in a bit of a fancier way if it were to be included in an administrative back end used by a client.

The third method, "displayMailReport," can be run with this simple invocation (most likely run automatically through CFSCHEDULE or some other server scheduler set to run it once a week):


<><CFOBJECT
component="mycfcmapping.verityreport"
name="verityreportcfc">
<CFINVOKE
component="#verityreportcfc#"
method="displaymailreport">

The "displayMailReport" method called in this manner will e-mail the ordered report once a week to the e-mail address specified as "request.mailto" in the Application.cfm template. Or, it may be called with a form that asks for more detail, allowing for a user-specified date range as well as one or more user-specified e-mail recipients. Note one very handy feature of a method that invokes another method within a component: you can pass all the arguments wholesale from the calling method to the called method with this single parameter:

argumentcollection="#ARGUMENTS#".

Listing 2 provides an example of calling the "displayMailReport" method through a form. A screenshot of the report it can generate - ---in this case showing some recent search terms used on my blog, poorlcio.com - is shown in Figure 1.

It Could Be So Much Better!
Since I created this CFC, I have found it very useful to receive the weekly generated e-mails with the reports of search terms used by my various sites' visitors. Ihave also found it handy to use the form version in Listing 2 to generate screen reports or to send e-mail reports to myself or others.

But, like a lot of you, the second I make a mental note that something is done, I immediately start thinking of all the ways I could improve it. A future version of this CFC and its implementation would probably expand the database to include a field identifying which template in a site with multiple search blanks had generated this particular search, and to return that information as part of the reporting. Also, I'm already tinkering with a related CFC that will record and report which database records have been the most frequently called into template pages that are populated from databases - nothing to do with Verity or searches, but certainly information that tells us what our site visitors have been looking for and utilizing.

When we get an even more enriched version of Verity with Blackstone, I'll no doubt be taking another look at this CFC to mine the value of the new Verity features - not only for site visitors when they explore our sites, but also for us developers as we observe their paths through our sites. If this leads me to add a Verity-specific feature or two to my CFC , it would finally live up to its name.

More Stories By James Edmunds

James Edmunds is a freelance Internet developer and arts administration consultant living in New Iberia, Louisiana. After a career in journalism that included writing for national publications such as Newsweek and serving as editor for an alternative weekly newspaper he founded in southern Louisiana, James began to pursue a second career working with arts groups. Though he had no technology background, his interest in harnessing the power of the Internet to serve the interests of the arts led him into Internet development, an arena in which he has now gone beyond the arts to serve a general business clientele.

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