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Searching without result

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 which can help you to 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.

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 that they can 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 [erhaps 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.

3. 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 which 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.

4. 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.

5. 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?

If your site is running on WordPress, and you’re using the default settings, then you may find that your results prioritise recency over relevance, which isn’t always a good fit for searchers. You might consider using a plugin which alters WordPress’ search behaviour, 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.

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25 Responses to Searching without result

  1. Mark
    Mark  • 10 years ago

    Just to clarify… you show that you set the Google Analytics > Site Search > Category Parameter to cat. What if you are using custom permalinks and set the Category Base to customcategoryname? Would you put customcategoryname in the Category Parameter field or is it not relevant since it is not passed as a URL variable after the ? (question mark) in the url?

  2. Corne
    Corne  • 11 years ago

    Hi Joost,

    I don’t want to be annoying but it still doesn’t work. I installed the plugin which you can download here: Is that the latest version?

  3. Joost de Valk

    Yes, all of you should update your Google Analytics plugin :)

  4. Corne
    Corne  • 11 years ago

    Hi Joost,

    I have a relative new blog and there are some bugs in Analytics. I tried to install this tool several times but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t measure the site searches I do. Anyone who has the same difficulties?

    • Joost de Valk

      Got it running somewhere so I can test it? :)

      • Corne
        Corne  • 11 years ago
        • Joost de Valk

          Just fixed a bug that I found there, thanks! :)

          • Corne
            Corne  • 11 years ago

            You’re welcome. Must I update the Analytics plugin? I did a new search and I still doesn’t see them appear in Analytics.

  5. SEO Company
    SEO Company  • 11 years ago

    Tracking zero result searches in Google Analytics is really impressive. It helped me in analyzing my website and improving the stuff. Thanks for such a different idea.

  6. Roel Willems
    Roel Willems  • 11 years ago

    @BWI That is a great metric to look at, but the method described above will also give you some insights on the results shown to the visitor before they exit (so it will be easier to convince a boss, or yourself for that matter, to take some action on the “missing” content ;) ).

  7. BWI
    BWI  • 11 years ago

    When using GA, try filtering content by title,say “Search Results” for my site. Then sort content by Exit%. You can see instantly what type of search traffic is taking off from your site.

  8. Karl Foxley
    Karl Foxley  • 11 years ago

    There certainly will be some great uses for this (site content ideas being the main one).


  9. Towhid
    Towhid  • 11 years ago

    I find that the greatest flaw with the built in WordPress search function is the lack of keyword suggestions. And as of now there isn’t any plugin that extends the search feature in any significant way. I’m currently using the plugin: Search Everything which enables the searching of tags, categories, etc. But it too doesn’t offer keyword suggestions for misspelled words. I can have 200 articles about “Siberian tigers” but if a visitor on my site types “syberian tigers” it will return a zero search results page. This is a serious shortcoming in the inherent WordPress search functionality.

    Another is, the system placing more emphasis on the date of publishing than relevance when returning search results. If I have two articles one titled “Dog Breed” and another more recently published one titled “Dog attacks man”, then a search of the term “Dog Breed” will return a results page with the latter post on top of the more relevant former one.

    • Joost de Valk

      Ehm… you mean a plugin like Search Suggest?

      • Towhid
        Towhid  • 11 years ago

        Hi Joost,

        Yeah I know about that plugin, I tried to get it to work some time ago and tried again just now. It simply doesn’t work, not in my usual theme and not in the default theme. It would have been incredible if it did work.

        • Joost de Valk

          Hmm. I’ll have a look some time, stopped using it myself when I switched to Google Site Search for this site…

  10. tom pitts
    tom pitts  • 11 years ago

    i wrote a post about how to capture number of results instead of just null results. it’s useful to see what results may returning all of your articles or just 1 article as well.

    • Joost de Valk

      Interesting, you’re right, that could be valuable data… I could even create a couple of categories, in theory: “no-results”, “1-2 results”, “3-5 results”, “5-10 results” and “10+ results”.

      • tom pitts
        tom pitts  • 11 years ago

        obviously the extremes, too few or too many results are the most important, but i think its worthwhile to have the numbers separate, especially 0 and 1 results. sometimes people implement search redirects for 1 result pages.

        i also don’t like the idea of editing the keyword to have the phrase no results included. then if you do create content around those phrases, you end up breaking your search keyword trends because how you record the keyword changes when you add the content.

        • Joost de Valk

          Yeah I’ll be working that in, actually doing the 1 result immediate redirect might be odd in terms of usability, I’d have to test that, but it could be quite easily done…

      • Roel Willems
        Roel Willems  • 11 years ago

        @tom Great plugin, it’s always good to have a more indepth view of how visitors are searching on you website.

        The hardest part of tracking the number of results with you internal search is to make the data actionable. I can imagine the system proposed by Joost to be actionable. You could get some understanding out of this data on how do visitors behave if they see: no results, 1-2 results, a group of results (3-5 and 5-10) and a large number of results (10+).

  11. Jim
    Jim  • 11 years ago

    Great post! I’ve done some monitoring of site searches when I am at a loss for what to write next, but your article makes we want to dig in and see everything else I am missing (from my customer’s point of view)!

    • Luke
      Luke  • 11 years ago

      Hay Jim. It looks like you’re in Chicago. We were doing work for an online store that wanted to compete with Lumber Liquidators. The project was cancelled, the company was closed, but we got paid and have research on that industry that may help you. Let me know if you’re interested.

    • Joost de Valk

      Good stuff, glad we’ve been able to inspire you!