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Is Your UI Causing Zero Search Results Pages?

I recently published a new book, Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success (Wiley, 2011) that helps frame search as a high-touch social experience. The book presents the challenges of designing search and gives the reader patterns, tips, and tricks to implement effective and elegant UX solutions. The book also includes 19 perspectives from todayâ€s most prominent UX experts on topics such as mobile, tablets, social search, behavioral models, analytics, breadcrumbs, SEO, and more. The first chapter is available to UX Magazine readers for free download here.

One of the topics that features prominently in the book is a powerful design strategy called designing from zero that uses zero-results pages (the pages a user sees when his search yields no results) as the catalyst for creating powerful, original design solutions that create customer delight and business revenue. This article introduces the concept of designing from zero by discussing how to analyze UI challenges that are often the hidden cause of zero-results pages.

Search, more than any other activity on a website, is a living, evolving process of discovery—a conversation between a customer and the site. Zero search results pages are not “user errors;†they are merely misunderstandings in this conversation. The effectiveness of your zero-results pages is crucial for keeping the search conversation going and your customers engaged. This is especially true on mobile devices, where fat fingers, autocorrection, and multitasking constantly interfere with peopleâ€s ability to formulate clear, concise queries.

Understanding how your zero-results page performs can help you turn zero search results into an opportunity for deeper connection with the customer, and help uncover sources of tremendous competitive advantage.

To conduct your analysis, you can use search analytics and qualitative UX research, but the best results come from triangulating the results yielded by both approaches. As Louis Rosenfeld suggests in his excellent new book, Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers, a good place to begin is by analyzing the top 100 queries that produce zero search results. Look for patterns such as:

  • Misspelled product and brand names. This is harder than it sounds, because misspellings of the same keywords are variable and often very creative, so not all the versions will end up in the top 100. One of the retailers I worked with found that people consistently (and creatively) misspelled “Stratocaster†as “Stradocaster,†“Staratcaster,†“Stradakaster,†etc. Although “Stratocaster†was one of the most frequently misspelled terms, not all of the misspelled versions were captured by the top 100 zero-results queries.

  • Too many keywords. After misspelling, over-constraining the query with too many keywords is one of the most common ways to get zero results. Sometimes over-constraining comes from picking a wrong category or other filters, which often occurs if the customer is not aware he has retained a filter from a previous search.

  • Specialized queries. Queries on SKUs, ISBNs, dates, and amounts may be legitimate searches that your search engine does not support, yielding zero results. Other specialized queries include navigation attempts and category names. I once run a field study where the participant kept searching for help by typing “Help†into the product search box. Needless to say, the person was very confused when all he found was an album by The Beatles.

  • Searches for products your site does not sell. For example, Thirstypocket is an e-commerce iPhone app that tracks garage sales. The inventory depends on what other people put up for sale on any given day, so hard-to-find items are sometimes, well, hard to find. You need to have a strategy in place to deal with the situations where the product is legitimate, but your site does not offer it at the time.

Next, analyze the sessions that included zero search results. Look for sessions where zero search results pages occurred multiple times in a row and that resulted in customer exiting the site. This is a danger sign of thrashing—a behavioral anti-pattern that occurs when people keep adding to and changing their query without removing the keyword that caused the zero results to be returned.

Looking at the top 100 zero-results queries and performing quantitative analysis is often very enlightening in understand how customers get zero-results pages, yet it can be very difficult to understand why customers behave the way they do. This is where qualitative analysis such as lab usability or field studies can be very helpful. Field studies are a preferred way to analyze zero results because they will allow you to observe your customers in the wild (in their “natural habitat†of their home or office) so the behaviors you will see will most likely be genuine. Some mobile search behaviors, such as accidentally hitting the “Go†button while typing with one hand can be especially tricky to discover through lab studies alone, but can be observed quite readily if the participant is being observed while she is jostled in the Metro at rush hour.

Before you undertake a field study, get together with your search team and take a careful look at your zero-results pages to form some preliminary follow-up questions. Some page designs, such as that of morningstar.com (shown below), actually invite thrashing:

  1. There is there is no explicit message that states “No results found.” Instead, tiny text in the black bar states 1-0 of 0, which doesnâ€t make much sense. Customers who donâ€t realize they have received zero results will likely try the same query several times.

  2. Instead of giving the user helpful ways of getting better results, the page presents several completely useless and confusing links: “Analyst Reports & Data,” “Morningstar Articles,” and “Tools.” At first glance, it seems like clicking these links would let customers browse content relevant to their queries. Unfortunately, the links are actually filtering controls that serve only to further constrain a search. If the search already has no results, this leads to further thrashing, and requires the customer to click the Back button multiple times to return to useful content.

  3. There is little content on the page that helps customers reach their goals. Most of the links are third-party ads that have little to do with financial information about “Small and Mid Cap Value Funds.†Because there is nothing on the page to help them, customers are forced to reword their queries instead, leaving, for example, the problem keyword “Opphmr†and changing the other keywords in the query.


Site search analytics can help you identify the statistically important negative outcomes you are trying to avoid, while qualitative field studies can help you understand interface issues that prevent customers from reaching their goals. What can you do once youâ€ve found the issues? A great place to start is by downloading Chapter 1 of my new book, Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success (Wiley, 2011).


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