January 19th, 2007


empty queries - what's going on?

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.
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