Search: No Results Equal No Sale

Depending on your industry, anywhere from 20 to over 60 percent of visitors use the search functionality on your site. While many companies have invested a lot of money in search engines, few have really taken the time to create a meaningful no-results page.

While the best search engine will minimize the number of no-results pages shown, inevitably a user will search for something you don’t have, or will call something you do have by a name you’d never think of. Let’s look across industries at how different companies handle the no-results page and list best practices you should follow when implementing this page.

Best Practice #1: Never Have a Dead-End Page

A dead-end page is a page with no links on it and no calls to action. It basically tells the user, “I give up. You might as well close your browser now or bang your head against the wall.” Most sites, across all industries, have dead-end pages as their “no results found” page. Prudential simply says, “Your search did not match any documents” and gives up. No links on the page try to help the user further nor point anywhere else on the site. Hoovers.com doesn’t do much better. Its no-results page says, “No results found. Please go back and refine your search.”

Both these sites provide a large search box to try your search again, a step in the right direction. Our research shows usually about half the people who reach a no-results page try to search again. When there are no other options, however, the other half simply close their browsers or go to a competitor’s site.

Best Practice #2: Don’t Blame the User

Your search engine returned no results. That’s not my fault. Your no-results page shouldn’t look like an error page, making me feel as if I did something wrong. A search results page should apologize when it can’t find anything and offer suggestions and alternatives. Too often, these pages say things like, “No results found. Try your search again.”

Why not soften that up a bit? Microsoft’s search results page says, “Sorry, we couldn’t find any pages containing [the search term].” It’s softened the message and taken responsibility for not find anything. It then offers suggestions on how to make the search better. Moreover, links are provided to go to the Microsoft Community, where questions and answers are posted, to offer the chance to provide feedback on the search functionality, to search the Web in general, and to provide a way for users to change their language, in case that helps with the search. These are all smart ways to help, not blame, the user.

Best Practice #3: Return More Than One Type of Thing

Too often, search results pages return only one type of thing. In retail, it’s usually products. In business, it could be reports on a company, articles on a given topic or services, or something similar. Your Web site hopefully contains more than just those elements. The search results page (empty or not) must become a fully merchandized page, not just a listing of products. In cases where no items are found, these other elements become critical.

Take an inventory of what your site has. It might include:

  • A list of categories

  • A list of popular business reports
  • Top-selling items in each category
  • E-mail sign-ups for various topics
  • Downloadable widgets or components (e.g., a stock ticker or a news headline service)
  • RSS feeds
  • FAQs
  • Phone numbers for support or a list of ways to contact the company
  • A store finder or information about local store hours
  • A configurator or other product selector
  • Promotion and sale information
  • Temporal information like “what people are searching for now,” “what people are buying now,” or “today’s top sellers”
  • Buyer or how-to guides

Your site contains much more than what you sell or information about your services. The search results page, when it actually finds things to return, should become a personalized home page containing targeted versions of all the above (really, a topic for another column). For our purposes now, the no-results version of this page should return the most popular, or top, versions of all the above.

JCPenney.com’s no-results page is a list of all its categories, enabling searchers to browse rather than simply leave the site. Dell.com provides links to all its configurators and selectors, such as the “Dell Memory Selector” and “Dell Storage Selector.” These sites all try to help you find alternatives.

Best Practice #4: Differentiate a Bad Search from a Term You Don’t Understand

There’s a difference between asking what the proper result should be when a user searches for “sdfhsdff” (obvious garbage) and what it should return when a user searches for something you simply don’t have.

Macy’s presented a case study on its search results page at a conference I attended last week. If you search a product or product type it doesn’t sell online but does sell in stores, it includes a store locator on the no-results page.

Search “furniture,” for instance. The search engine understands the term “furniture” and knows it isn’t sold online. The engine returns a page that’s smart: it tells the user furniture is sold in stores and points to the store locator.

Conclusion

Think about the search results page as if it were a personalized home page, with personalization based on a keyword. More and more people get to your site through a search engine. Their entrance page isn’t the home page but rather a search results page. Whether the page contains information that pertains to the search term or points the user to other site resources, the page should be fully merchandised and designed. There should never be any dead-end pages on a Web site.

If your no-results page contains nothing but a note saying, “No results found,” you may as well close the browser automatically. That user is done shopping with you.

If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll write more about what should be on a search results page and how searching and browsing are converging. As always, I try to stick to topics that interest you, so please let me know if you’d like to read more about on-site search.

Until next time…

Jack

(Originally published on April 20, 2007)

Meet Jack at Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus more than 150 exhibitors, networking events, parties, and training days.

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