Searching without result: Insights from zero result searches

When users search on your website and find no results, that’s usually a bad experience. But if you track these “zero result searches”, you might find yourself with data that can help you identify new content and service opportunities. It might also tell you a lot about the difference between how you see your website and how your users see it.

The gap between brand identity vs. brand perception

Almost every website owner can explain in a few sentences what their website is about, and why people should visit it. This is the identity of your website. Separately to that, each visitor creates their own impression of your website (influenced by your design, content, tone, and so on). This is brand perception.

If you’re doing a great job with your marketing and your messaging, there should be little difference between your identity and your brand perception. That way you’re building a consistent brand for your business.

But that’s a hard balance to strike. And if you get a lot of visitors to your site, it’s likely that they’ll all have slightly different opinions of and experience with your pages. They might have diverse expectations, backgrounds, and cultural influences. That’ll make it harder for you to ‘land’ your stories and messaging.

That creates a gap. The wider that gap, the harder it’ll be for you to convince users to take action. You haven’t convinced them, helped them, or made them believe.

In our experience, most websites aren’t always successful in achieving this harmony of brand and brand perception. But how can you determine whether this is the case on your site? Well, your on-site search can provide some helpful insight.

Insight from zero result searches

A search query with no results can have quite a few different meanings, all of them useful information to help you improve your website. The most common ones are:

1. Right content, wrong visitors?

Perhaps your visitors are expecting to find a certain piece of information on your website, but shouldn’t have been on your website in the first place (a discrepancy between your identity and the brand perception of your visitor).

Maybe you’re attracting the wrong kind of visitors for what you’re offering (or in the wrong stage of a buying process). Take a look at the traffic source in order to determine if you’re ranking on the proper keywords or targeting the right terms with your campaigns.

Or, perhaps you’re attracting the right kinds of visitors, but they’re going to the wrong content – and they’re getting mixed signals about what products or services you offer (or don’t).

Aligning the right types of people to the right pages and content might mean that they never have to search in the first place. A good way to ensure this is by optimizing your site structure.

2. Missed opportunities

The other way to view this problem is to see it as an opportunity. If you’re attracting visitors who’re engaging with your site but searching for products/services/information you don’t have, perhaps you can meet that need.

Imagine your website is for a bakery which sells cupcakes. You may find that lots of people search your site for ‘donuts’, but they get no results.

Maybe, instead of working to change your brand perception and all of your campaigns, you could start to sell donuts. In fact, you already have some great data to help you to understand the market demand and consumer behaviour. And the customers are already on your site.

Of course, real-world production, marketing and logistics challenges are never ‘simple’, but zero result searches can be a great way to spot the next big thing you should pivot into.

3. Keyword choices

The words used by the visitor when searching for something are different from the vocabulary used on the website. For example; your visitor searches for “VAT” but the website only contains a section about “goods and services tax”. So they don’t find what they’re looking for.

This situation is a great chance to improve your website. You will be presented with a list of quickly fixable “issues”; keywords used by your visitors which are not present on your website at the moment. If you can work out what those searchers wanted, you can go back to your content and diversify your language and phrasing to match their vocabulary and tone.

That’ll help you to solve their problems, and, to close the gap between brand identity and perception.

Read more: The ultimate guide to keyword research »

4. Your internal search engine isn’t good enough

In some cases, it may be that you already have all of the right content you need to solve your users problems – but that they’re not finding it when they search. Perhaps the results aren’t in a great order, or, some pages aren’t showing up at all? It’s important to have an internal search engine that functions properly.

If your site is running on WordPress, and you’re using the default settings, then you may find that your results prioritize recency over relevance, which isn’t always a good fit for searchers. You might consider using a plugin that alters WordPress’ search behavior, and makes it more configurable (like Relevanssi).

How do I set up the tracking?

If you’re one of the many people who use Google Analytics (and/or Google Tag Manager), then this guide should give you a great starting point to set up your tracking.

You may find that the details differ a little for you, depending on a few variables. If you’re using a different analytics package, or, if your on-site search isn’t ‘normal’, then you might need to do some work to get everything set up properly.

In conclusion: 0 results can be very useful

Yes, zero result searches can be a bad experience for your users. But by tracking them you can turn these experiences into useful information to improve your site.

By analyzing these searches you can figure out whether the right people are visiting your site or whether your audience is able to find their way around your site. You can also use the search queries as inspiration in the products and services you offer. Or find out whether you’re focusing on the right keywords, the ones your audience uses. It can also give you insight into your internal search engine and if it’s functioning the way you want it to.

Enough reasons to set up the tracking through your Analytics, right?

Keep reading: More on website optimization: 6 daily SEO tasks »

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6 Responses to Searching without result: Insights from zero result searches

  1. Parth
    Parth  • 2 months ago

    You said this “Instead of working to change your brand perception and all of your campaigns, you could start to sell donuts. In fact, you already have some great data to help you to understand the market demand and consumer behaviour. And the customers are already on your site.”

    But there is no guarantee customer always stayed what they at looking for! There is no any matrix proove what exactly visiters wanted..

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 2 months ago

      Hi there Parth! Thank you for your comment.

      Of course, it’s always a challenge to know what visitors exactly want. But what we mean to say with this example, is that these site searches can give you insight into what visitors want (or expect) to find on your site. And this can be an indicator of missed opportunities you might want to explore.

      Whether people will actually start buying your donuts is something you’ll have to find out. But when lots of people search your site for ‘donuts’, it is something to consider as possible market demand. Still, you can always follow this up with audience research to find out whether your audience really has a craving for donuts :)

      I hope this clears it up!

  2. Ishita Gupta
    Ishita Gupta  • 2 months ago

    This information is really helpful for us. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 2 months ago

      You’re welcome, Ishita! We aim to help :)

  3. basant kumar
    basant kumar  • 2 months ago

    I like the way, you gave information on gap between brand identity vs. brand perception.

    But my question is on what i should more making Brand identify or brand perception.

    Please reply,

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      Willemien Hallebeek  • 2 months ago

      Hi Kumar, perception is how others perceive your brand and, therefore, is much more difficult to change. Your identity is who you think you are, so that’s something which is easier to control, so better start there! In the ideal situation, there shouldn’t be much difference between the two!