May 15, 2003, 12:00 AM

No Results Found needs more than “Sorry,” says usability consultant

Contingency web site design deals with query errors to put derailed shoppers back on track. “Instead of giving someone a dead end, you want to give them tools or a suggestion to get them back on track,” 37signals president Jason Fried says.

Error messages are a fact of life in site search, due to misspellings and other issues, even with the best site search tools used by retailers, Jason Fried, president of web design and usability consultants 37signals, tells Internet Retailer.

“Site search isn’t really something you can buy off the shelf, plug in and be done with,” says Fried. “A lot of the retailers we talk to that have purchased off the shelf search applications say the tools are a good place to start, but not quite everything they need. Every site’s needs are different, and nothing is going to satisfy everyone. If you’re a clothing retailer, for example, Gucci is probably not a word that’s going to be found in the dictionary that comes with a standard site search tool.”

That means that search won’t deliver results – unless the retailer monitors queries and results and continually adjusts the site search application. “You have to get in there and, see where people are having problems, what words they are misspelling frequently, and then plug those in,” Fried says.

While it’s impossible to completely eliminate “no results found” searches, he adds, it’s how a site directs shoppers at that point that can make the difference between shoppers who bail and shoppers who stay. In a recent survey of 25 top e-retailers, 37signals found that one of the factors to which Macy’s attributed a recent doubling of its online conversions was that it had started to plan for inaccurate search query contingencies. For example, the site now returns results for brand DKNY even when the search query is incorrectly entered as “DKNI,” rather than simply delivering a no results found page.

“Instead of giving someone a dead end, you want to give them tools or a suggestion to get them back on track,” says Fried. “Since it’s impossible to be perfect, we say you must make mistakes well.”

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