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Jul 20, 2011 | 5 minute read

Site Search: Strategies for No Results Found

written by Linda Bustos

If you've been following us for a while, you know from time to time we review a book that's relevant to the ecommerce community. In lieu of an eighth grade-esque book review, I share an excerpt of a book with permission from the publisher. This installment is from Greg Nudelman's latest Designing Search: UX Strategies for Ecommerce Success. It's rare to find over 300 pages dedicated to one feature of an ecommerce site, but site search optimization is a discipline that warrants such depth!

One aspect of site search optimization we do well to obsess over is the ability to keep a user engaged on your site, even when a search attempt fails, for example, when zero matches are returned. This post is based on the section "No Search Results Strategy: Not a Zero-Sum Game." Nudelman believes that "no simple set of rules exist that guarantees a successful implementation of a no search results page. However, the following four broad design principles provide a useful starting point:"

1. Don't be afraid to say I did not understand. Clearly indicate there are no search results, so your customer can recover.

2. Focus on a providing a way out. Make sure every control on the search results page does something productive to help resolve the no search results condition.

3. Create a robust partial match strategy. Over-constraining is the most frequent mistake people make when searching ecommerce sites. Having a robust partial match strategy is critical.

4. Employ multiple content strategies. Draw from multiple sources to provide the most relevant content first to aid recovery from the no search results condition, while staying true to your customer's original intent.

Do Not Be Afraid to Say I Did Not Understand

When there are no products that match a search query, it's important to clearly state as such. is an extreme example of what not to do:

Google's method is better, clearly showing that an automatic substitution was made, with the option to search for the original query:

Focus on Providing a Way Out

Every search page that returns no matches should help the customer recover.'s "Narrow By" tools are superfluous (you can't refine zero). Nothing on this page helps the user escape other than conducting another search:

Interestingly, Endless is owned by, which provides a stellar way out by broadening the search term and showing clearly how the term was modified.

I've come across an alternate presentation. Ebay offers a list of several search refinements with the number of search results present for each option:

Create a Robust Partial Match Strategy

The figure above shows a partial match strategy in action. According to Nudelman's user testing research and field studies, next to misspelling, overconstraining is the most common cause of no results found (people enter too many keywords). Showing relevant content that matches a part of the customer's search term, while clearly showing which keywords were omitted from search results provides your customers with a much better chance of finding something they want, and reduces site abandonment.

"In most studies I've observed, even after participants have figured out which part of the query they've gotten wrong, not a single person has ever come back to the site that originally failed to deliver partial matches that would in some way guide them to the product they were seeking."

Nudelman says few sites do a better job at partial match than This example shows two partial match results on one page:

Another cause of overconstraint is when the customer searches within a category. Offering the option to expand their search to all categories is another partial match tactic. Ketera uses a text link (though I am concerned this call to action is not visible enough).

Nudelman notes that though this approach works, it forces the customer to take action without assurance that there are results waiting on the other side. A better way is to display any results from all categories on the search results page, with an appropriate heading like "More Like This."

I often search eBay and constrain to Canada, as this is my first choice for speed and cost of delivery. This constraint often yields zero results. Ebay shows items from international sellers, my second choice, which is a great usability feature for me.

Employ Multiple Content Strategies

In addition to partial match, successful search result pages use several content strategies when no matches can be served. The Ketera example above not only provides one, but multiple "ways out." There is a link to browse a relevant category or to create a public Request for Information for the search term, as well as links to featured suppliers.

Other ideas:

  • Correct spelling or substitute the original keyword(s) with different ones from a controlled vocabulary
  • Remove some of the original keywords, or make partial matches
  • Match only categories or aspects, without the keywords
  • Show top searches, featured results or most popular results
  • Use autosuggestion tools
  • Display 3rd party resources and ads

Be careful how you display ads...Ebay's text ads sometimes push its alternative search links too far down the page.

How many folks will scroll below ads?

We often forget about site search abandonment with all the focus on checkout, but keeping searchers on your site should also be an optimization goal. You may not be able to implement all the above strategies overnight, or even with your current search tool. But it's helpful to be aware of how zero results found can be remedied, to help guide your roadmap for future site improvements.

Looking for help with ecommerce? Contact the Elastic Path consulting team at to learn how our ecommerce strategy and conversion optimization services can improve your business results.