pile of lemurs with long tails

Top search queries provide site and content owners valuable insights into the needs and the demands of the end user.

But the other end of the search log file — the end of the long tail — gets very little attention, especially in enterprise search circles. 

Public site SEO experts are aware of the value these searches provide, but you might wonder why you should worry about infrequent search terms or queries that deliver no results at all. 

These rare terms provide real opportunity for businesses smart enough and agile enough to care.

Still not convinced? Read on.

The Bottom of the Search Heap

What causes infrequent queries? The obvious answer is irrelevant terms, or a query related to topics searchers don’t care much about.  

But before you move on, let me suggest an experiment.

Extract the bottom 100 queries from your search logs, and see if you can identify any commonalities. Cluster them into five ‘buckets’ that seem to fit, for example, you might find some are misspellings of common terms on your site, or a misspelling of your product name. 

Now see if you can come up with a handful of categories: HR, Product, Policies, misspellings, etc. 

If one or two categories have more terms, move to the next 100 terms. You can keep going as long as you like, but chances are good you’ll see some common ground.

Perhaps employees are searching your internal site for content on your public facing site, or for employee names. You may also see foreign language terms: German or French queries on your U.S. site. 

Finding a misspelling of your product name on your public-facing web site log is potentially a big deal. Even if your “Did you mean ...” message works,  think how much more professional your site would look if you automatically showed the user the result list they were probably looking for, maybe including a note at the top telling the user what you’ve done.

When you get a few of these insights, ask yourself: Are these easy to fix, and is it worth the time? 

Clearly handling employee names is simple and usually helpful: insert a single line above your result list with the employee name, email address and phone number. Chances are good you answered the searchers’ question.

You can continue to repeat this process for as long as you like. Some of these exceptions will apply to top queries as well — and may in fact help those results because there are more of them!

Zero Hits, Big Opportunities

Zero hit queries — those that return no content at all — are a special case. Ask yourself: what does a zero hit indicate? 

A few things are in play here. You may have missing content, or your site may use different vocabulary than your users. You may not be able to answer these questions without investing some time. 

But if a particular zero hit term occurs often, you have some homework to do.

Sometimes it might happen that you would expect to find content on your website, but it isn't there. This is a great opportunity to talk with your content team and generate relevant content.

A very detailed and wordy query will often result in zero hits as no content contains all of the terms. Many modern platforms use what Verity used to call the "accrue" operator: the more terms in a document, the more relevant. You should always try to return some content if any of the terms is on your site.

If a ‘zero hit’ term is something you might expect to find on your site but the user is misspelling or calling it something else, this is a real opportunity. When search users —whether internal or external — frequently misspell terms, define some synonyms, including the common misspelling, to solve the problem and create happy users. 

And if your public-facing site gets queries for competitors’ products, you’ve got a great opportunity to suggest your own product and perhaps win a new customer.

If the zero-hits term just doesn’t belong on your intranet, think about reaching out the person or persons who performed the query and try to discover their intent. 

Finally, if a term is inappropriate for work — an obscenity or a slur — talk to your HR department and let them make the call.

Title image "Lemur Pile" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Eric Kilby