Make Your Retail Website Stickier

There's nothing more frustrating than a "no results" response to a website search query - the equivalent of the infamous Internet error code 404, page not found.

However, as unwelcome as the "no results" page is for users, it's even worse for your business.

When a potential customer conducts a search on your site and receives zero matches, it's likely that their visit will come to an instant, unsatisfying end. They will leave your site in an Internet heartbeat, which is why it's critical to make your site's search function more robust and users' experiences more engaging.

For many site visitors, the search box is the preferred way to quickly find products and content, and search box users tend to convert at a higher rate. So it's important to give them something that piques their interest, even if you don't have the items for which they are looking. Consider that people don't always use search terms that match product descriptions, or they may spell a product or brand name wrong.

For example, if you have a skincare products retail site, some of your visitors in search of anti-aging products might type "anti-ageing" into the search box. Others may use the search term "wrinkles", and because these alternate terms aren't included in the product names, a no results page would be returned. Likewise, people may search for an item that is out of stock or simply not part of your offering, which would generate "zero results found."

Rather than simply show no results, give them something else to consider. Here are nine ways how you can do this:

1. Incorporating auto-complete into the search field allows you to offer suggested search terms as a user begins typing their query. These suggested search terms, based on your inventory and content, minimize misspellings and ensure results. Customers appreciate this feature because it helps them find what they're looking for faster.

2. Review your site search data for misspelled words or synonyms that your search may not recognize, then add these alternate spellings and terms into your search indexing.

3. Scour reports of search phrases that have returned no results to better understand what products or information your visitors expect you to have, then consider whether you should add those items to your offering.

4. Ensure that product features are also indexed by site search. In our earlier example, it's likely that "fine lines and wrinkles" would appear in feature copy, even if it weren't part of an anti-aging product's name.

5. Offer alternate spelling suggestions with "Did you mean...?" If a user types in "anti-ageing", they'll be happier to see "Did you mean anti-aging?" than they would an apology. Pull these recommendations from your existing search data and match them to your offering as appropriate.

6. Show popular search results for similar products or keywords. Perhaps you don't carry "Acme board shorts", but that doesn't mean users won't be interested in board shorts by another brand. Creating a database of products and keyword synonyms allows you to capture more opportunities.

7. Display keyword-specific banners. If a visitor searches for a product you no longer stock, a banner can be an eye-catching way to let them know about alternate options.

8. Display your site's most popular search terms and link them directly to their own search results pages. This may not help a shopper find what they came for, but it could generate interest in something else.

9. Always make it easy for shoppers to reach your customer service team if they need assistance.

Ultimately, your ecommerce platform is not unlike a brickand- mortar store. If a customer asked one of your sales associates about a specific item, you'd never want the employee to merely say, "I'm sorry, we don't have that." Instead, you'd train them to suggest alternatives.

By making the most of technology services and tools, you can train your website to better understand customer needs, too, and help them find something they're interested in. Before long, fewer blank results pages will lead to bigger returns and a measureable improvement in the stickiness of your site.

About the Author: Terry Costa is the vice president of marketing for SLI Systems, responsible for global marketing efforts as well as for driving growth of SLI's search technology and services in the ecommerce and publishing industries.