Searching without result

Already a long time ago Justin Cutroni wrote a great post a while back on Tracking Zero Result Searches in Google Analytics. Tracking zero result searches on your website (corporate site, eCommerce website or your blog) is vital to get a glimpse of what your visitors are looking for but can’t find on your website. Let’s go in depth with the marketing and usability perspective of tracking those failed searches.

Identity vs. brand perception

Every website owner can explain in a few sentences why the website is online and why people should visit it. This is the identity of your website. Each visitor has his own perception of your website (mostly based on, advertisement, design and tone of voice). This is the brand perception.

Within a perfect world the perception your visitors have of your brand and your identity would be a perfect match. Of course this isn’t the case for most websites (unless you work for Coca Cola, Google or Apple, and even then). Due to the huge diversity of visitors almost all website are facing the challenge of providing visitors with the correct information to persuade them to take the desired action (buy, read on, interact, subscribe).

In our experience, most website 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? Look at your landing pages with high bounce rates. Visitors leave because they are not interested in your offer or expected something different when they clicked on the link to your website. And, of course, check out on-site search, it’s a very valuable metric to look at:

How can internal search tracking help you improve your website?

Going back to the example of the landing page with a high bounce rate, we only know people are leaving the website and can only guess as to what they were looking for. Tracking your visitors searches will give you far more insight in what your visitors are really looking for but can’t find.

By combining the (internal) search keywords, possible eCommerce data and the top content of your website you get some basic insight in the most popular content/products of your website. But this (as Justin Cutroni points out in his blog post) isn’t including searches visitors made on your site that have zero results.

What does a zero result search mean?

If a visitors performs a search on you website and isn’t getting any results it’s likely he will keep searching… But there’s a big chance this next search will be done on one of your competitors websites. 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. Brand Identity Issues
    The visitor has the perception that he 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). Chances are you are attracting the wrong kind of visitors (or in the wrong stage of a buying process if your are trying to sell stuff). Taking a look at the traffic source in order to determine if you’re ranking on the proper keywords or target the right terms with your CPC campaign (maybe you can save some bucks). The referral pages are worth looking at, maybe visitors performing this type of search just didn’t look at the right pages which would help them in their quest for information.
  2. Keyword Choices
    The words used by the visitor when searching for something are completely 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”. This situation is a great chance to improve your website. You will be presented with a list of quickly fixable “issue”: keywords used by your visitors which are not present on your website at the moment. Including search terms which resulted in zero search results within related post/pages will make sure people can find what they are looking for (even if it’s in their own words) and can make a huge impact on the user-friendliness and the effectiveness of your website (whether you are trying to sell stuff or just get your content read). Looking back at the identity and brand perception matching tone of voice and vocabulary with your visitors could prove a step in the right direction to get more loyal visitors.
  3. The Internal Search Engine is Inadequate
    The search engine used on the website can’t find content that should have been showing up in the search results, even when you’re sure it’s there. While this might not be as quick a fix, internal search is, as you will understand by now, hugely important. So you should solve the issues with the search engine and save valuable visitors.

Of course there are many more useful way’s of looking at the data (think of the data visualization option of Google Analytics). Justin also points out two interesting way’s of looking at it.

Huge thanks to my colleague Roel Willems for writing the first and awesome draft for this post!

Read more: Keyword research: the ultimate guide »

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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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 years ago
        • Joost de Valk

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

          • Corne
            Corne  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 years ago

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


  9. Towhid
    Towhid  • 10 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  • 10 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 bugger. 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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 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  • 10 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!