It’s rare for users these days to get zero results from a web-wide search engine, no matter how obscure the search term or query. There's so much stuff on the Internet and services like Google, Bing, and Baidu have teams of top-tier engineers working to make sure that every query has good results. But searching a single website or intranet, using its internal search engine, is another matter: People often get a disappointing No Results outcome.
Sometimes users encounter a No Results SERP (search engine results page) because the information they’ve searched for just isn’t available on that site. But in our research, we often see people running into No Results pages when the content exists, but for some reason doesn’t show up as a match for their query. Unfortunately, these No Results pages frequently become a dead end, where users get stuck, lost or confused.
Ideally, your search engine should understand even poorly worded queries and return a good set of results (learn more about improving search results in our Information Architecture course). Realistically, we know this process is sometimes going to break down; you can help users recover by following a few simple guidelines on your No Results page:
Clearly explain that there are no matching results.
Offer starting points for moving forward.
Don't mock the user.
Make It Obvious That There Are No Results
As any self-help book will tell you, the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. No Results pages must clearly state that no results have been found to match the user’s search terms. Appropriate typography and spacing are essential; otherwise, users can easily overlook or misunderstand the message.
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s actually a shockingly common failure: users arrive at a No Results page, and don’t even realize that the search engine hasn’t found any results. Instead they waste valuable time scanning irrelevant ads or related links, mistaking these for search results.
Why does this happen? Because users have formed very strong mental models for search due to years of heavy use of the main web-wide search engines. After entering a search query, users have a very strong expectation that they will see a specific layout: a page with some generic heading information at the top, which they can safely skip over to focus on the list of search results in the body of the page.
On the NexTag screen shown below, the user has misspelled a search term. The page did actually say “Sorry, no matches found for 2x4 flouresent ligting fixtures.” But the user completely overlooked this information because the text was small, lightweight, and squeezed in between the site logo and the first bold heading in the body of the page. We used eyetracking software to record exactly where the user looked on this screen, and the blue dots show where his eyes focused, or fixated, on the page. There were no fixations on the actual No Results statement. Instead he skipped to what looked like the main content of the page, the text appearing underneath the first bold heading.
It’s great to suggest alternative spellings or queries that users can try, but if they don’t understand that their original query returned no results, they end up feeling confused about why the site suggests that they search again, when they’ve just tried searching and haven’t even seen the results from their first search yet.
NexTag explains that there were no results matching the users query, but this information is so de-emphasized that users don’t even look at it. (The blue dots on this image show where eyetracking software recorded the user’s gaze path.)
Offer a Path Forward
Most users understand the basics of how to search: first think of a word to describe what you want, next type it in the box, and then press the Search button. But the average person is not very good at more sophisticated search techniques like query refinement. When our users get no results for a query, they need all the help they can get to come up with alternative search strategies, such as:
Restating the original query
Providing a search box (with the original query still in it for easy editing)
Suggestions for similar queries that do return results
Advice about how to modify queries, using different words or fewer words
NexTag.com (as shown in the screenshot above) offers most of these options. If users overcome the initial confusion of not understanding why there are no results on this search results page, they stand a good chance of recovering and trying a better query.
But all too often, No Results pages are dead ends that don’t offer any suggestions about what to do next. On Recipe.com, the body of the page contains an obvious “no results” message, but doesn’t include any links or any way for users to take action, except to click an ad for a completely different site—which is clearly not the best possible outcome for Recipe.com. The page does offer an alternative spelling (“Did you mean: brisket”), but this link appears above the results tabs, and as we saw with NexTag, users are unlikely to notice text that doesn’t appear to be part of the main body of page content.
On Recipe.com, the main body of the page doesn’t provide any links or suggestions for users (other than ads for external websites).
Don’t Mock the User
For some brands, humorous language and images make perfect sense and help engage the audience. But exercise extreme caution when trying to use humor on No Results pages (or other error pages).
Think about the context: users encounter these pages when they have just failed to find something. Humor can be a powerful way to defuse tension and express empathy, but it can also easily be misunderstood—especially online, where you can’t use intonation and body language to express nuances of tone. (More on tone of voice in the full-day course on writing Complex Web Content.)
Your users may not be able to tell whether you are laughing with them, or laughing at them, and most people don’t enjoy being mocked, especially when they are already frustrated. Help-U-Sell.com, a real-estate website, decorates their No Results page with a picture of a man with an exaggerated, dumbfounded facial expression. Since it’s unclear whether this image is supposed to represent the search engine or the user, some people will undoubtedly interpret it as a representation of the user, and it’s not a very flattering portrayal.
Help-U-Sell illustrates its "No Results” page with an image of a man making a funny-looking confused face, but it’s not clear if he’s supposed to represent the user or the search engine.
Good No Results Pages Turn Lemons into Lemonade
Let's see how a good design can combine these ideas to provide a better search user experience, even when the search itself fails. Food.com takes the same query as Recipe.com and handles it quite differently. They express empathy for the user (“Sorry, no results were found”), in a large, bold statement that is presented clearly within the main body of the page. The statement is followed up with advice about how to improve the query by changing the search terms. (This page would be even better if it included a suggested spelling correction, but it does at least clearly restate the original query.)
Food.com empathizes with the user, clearly states that there are no results, and offers suggestions for next steps.
Following these 3 guidelines — communicating clearly, offering help, and respecting your users — can change your No Results page from a potentially visit-ending dead end into a minor delay. The business value is clear every time you can turn a failed search into a case where the user actually found what they wanted.
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