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empty queries - what's going on? 
19th-Jan-2007 03:25 pm
Does anyone have any good feeling as to why there are so many empty searches? As far as I can tell, most of them are searches where the user somehow clicked the search button or put the cursor into the query field and pressed the Return key.

I first noticed empty searches back in the day, when I was working with a party planning site. I insisted on getting search logs and there were all those empty queries. In that case, it was particularly important, because the database back end took an empty query to be a request for every item in the catalog, displayed by order entered. When I reported it to my client, they fixed that and suddenly the load on the database went way down (a win for log analysis!)

I'm still baffled. I'm looking at a big busy site log right now, and checking out some of the sessions which include empty queries. Most of the time, the user just goes away. Sometimes they do another empty query (or click the search button). If they type a search term, it's almost never anything to do with the site contents -- they probably think they're on a webwide search engine.

So what should a search engine do if there's nothing in the search box?
  • Show a simple query page (this is what most of them do).

  • Do nothing. This seems pretty easy to implement, just a little javascript around the search form. But will it confuse people? Frustrate them? Make them want to kick the computer?

  • Show a little dialog that says they have to enter something in the search field. I know an intranet that does this, it seems to work very nicely, but that's a controlled environment.

Has anyone done any usability testing with this problem? Any insights? I'm boggled and would very much appreciate ideas here.
22nd-Jan-2007 12:11 am (UTC) - I've seen this
I think this is related to focusing the cursor in the text box. That causes "Return" to submit the search form regardless of what the user thinks that the key will do.

With Ultraseek, the focus is in the search box and the blank query is nearly always the most frequent. At Netflix, the focus is not in the search box and the blank query is way down the list.

Thinking about it, something close to "do nothing" is probably the right thing. Maybe an info box that looks like a tool tip and disappears automatically.

22nd-Jan-2007 08:27 pm (UTC) - Re: I've seen this
I'm talking more about queries that come from the front page or other site pages, using the search field on the nav bar. I wonder if the text field cursor focus is a browser-specific thing, though I have tried with IE6.
22nd-Jan-2007 08:47 pm (UTC) - Re: I've seen this
It is a bit of JavaScript. Call focus() on the query input box. Google does it, so check their HTML source.

It is possible that people go away after a blank query because they were trying to type a different site in the location bar and failed somehow. When they hit return, it submits a blank query. That would lump blank queries with the other "wrong box" queries like "google", "yahoo", and "netflix".
24th-Jan-2007 07:42 pm (UTC) - Re: I've seen this
good point, a set of "wrong box" queries
17th-Oct-2008 03:18 am (UTC)
However, if I do an action to cause a postback on the form, the cursor focus does drop where I want it, even though the BusyBox fires to re-draw the page.
24th-Jan-2007 10:17 am (UTC) - Users looking for the search page
Another source you might find is users ignoring the search box altogether and clicking the 'search' button as if it were a link to the search page. It seems there are quite a few users who expect to go to a dedicated search page rather than filling in the input field on a site home page.
24th-Jan-2007 07:45 pm (UTC) - Re: Users looking for the search page
I wish that were the case, but I don't think so. After looking at session logs, the things they type after empty queries are so clearly non-site-related that they seem lost rather than in control of the experience. Sigh.
17th-Feb-2007 12:36 am (UTC) - Keep up the outstanding work and thank you
Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it! :)
6th-Dec-2007 11:32 pm (UTC) - Re: Keep up the outstanding work and thank you
You're welcome, I'm hoping to update it this month.
17th-Oct-2008 05:21 am (UTC)
— Capítulo 0 18 Aug 08 at pm Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it. John Williams 20 Aug 08 at am Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it.
26th-Nov-2007 11:29 am (UTC) - empty queries - what's going on?
We use Verity's K2 Version 5.5 and we get blank search queries. I looked into it last week and discovered that a proportion of them were people using our parametric/category search rather than the text field. Not too sure whether this should be happening, but I am now looking into ways of distinguishing between genuine blank searches and parametric searches.
6th-Dec-2007 11:36 pm (UTC) - Re: empty queries - what's going on?
Ah, in your case there was a filter query without text, that makes sense. Definitely worth distinguishing.

You should consider joining http://groups.yahoo.com/group/searchloggers and/or http://groups.yahooo.com/groups/search_dev - there are other Verity & Autonomy users active in both places.
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