Love your users and your search

By February 19th, 2014

One of the most important pages on a site is the page displayed when there aren't any results for a search. It's one of the most ignored and least-loved pages. Since it's just past Valentine's Day, let's show the no-results page some love.

Standard Google Search Appliance search showing 'No Results', an empty search form and Google logo

That is an actual, unloved, zero-search-results page. It’s what happens when you turn on Google Search and don’t customize anything. How can we help this spartan page out? What do users need?

We want to help users avoid and correct mistakes. When we don’t have any results, something has gone wrong. We need to help get the user back on track.

Show the user what they typed.

If someone made a mistake typing or just made a search that was too specific, you should offer them the chance to correct that. Leave the query inside the field so they can easily edit it and try again. This can be invaluable to users with cognitive disabilities.

Offer suggestions for spelling mistakes.

With the Google Search appliance, suggestions aren’t always turned on by default. This is a setting that really needs special attention. You can magically turn a search for “Valentine’s hert” into “Did you mean…Valentine’s heart?”

You can go a step beyond that with a controlled vocabulary. A controlled vocabulary sets up a structure for common terminology—such as synonyms. It can connect your organization’s internal jargon with the words people in the outside world actually call those things. For instance, a medical organization’s term “myocardium” could be linked for a user searching for “heart.”

Make helpful suggestions

Some search queries might be improved when there are fewer keywords—or perhaps it might not be obvious if your form supports Boolean operators. Let users know they can simplify their search or use already built-in features.

Ask for feedback.

If your user isn’t shown any results, ask them what they wanted. A simple feedback form linked from this page can help you understand what’s not working with the search. If you can answer your user, you can help get them to the content they need. One on one.

Love your logs.

What are users not finding? Keeping an eye on the search logs can help you understand even more about your users’ needs. Are they looking for content that doesn’t exist—but should exist? You can find out more about what they want (without being that much of a stalker) by keeping track of what they’re doing.

Above all, love your users.

Be nice when there aren’t any results. Zero results for someone’s query? Offer a friendly message that matches the tone of your site.

And we’re almost done. Remember the Google logo at the bottom? It’s usually missing a text alternative. So make sure it has an alt attribute.

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