Magazine article Online Searcher

Tips for Avoiding, or Celebrating, Zero Search Results

Magazine article Online Searcher

Tips for Avoiding, or Celebrating, Zero Search Results

Article excerpt

Searchers like to find things. Librarians and information professionals may be unique in that they enjoy the searching process, not just the finding bit. As Roy Tennant wrote in Library Journal in 2001, paraphrasing Herb White, "Only librarians like to search; everyone else likes to find" ( column/?fetch=data/77.xml). But most librarians and information professionals do like to find the perfect citation, book, statistic, or other piece of information for their clients and themselves.

But what happens when we don't find anything, when we get zero results, a null set? Sometimes we can be so focused on finding one or more perfect answers, it can be easy to forget that, for some searches, an empty result set is exactly what the user wants, or that "no results" can lead to a more refined question. There are several strategic approaches to the null set, including checking the search statement, evaluating the database scope, and accepting zero results as success.


One common cause of the null set is an error in search terms. A simple misspelling can lead to zero results. Many library databases do not include the autocorrect feature common to web search engines. The first potential error to check, therefore, is misspelling. Google and search engines are teaching us that, as long as we enter something close to the common query, we will get either autosuggestions or even "corrected" search results. That conditioning has had an impact on searchers of other databases.

With autosuggest, as a searcher types, matching queries appear that can be chosen or at least can help correct spelling. The best implemented autosuggestions, at least on retail sites, will give matching suggestions based on available inventory. With more general web searches, the suggestions can range from exactly what is needed to ones that are humorously wrong. Sometimes autosuggestions can even be distractions, causing the searcher to browse results for a different topic. However, while the autosuggest can make it easy to fix search query errors for popular searches, for precise searches, autosuggestion can lead to an inaccurate result set as it tries to find a more popular search query than the one entered.

While autosuggest helps with accurate spelling or phrasing, autocorrect takes it a step further. Web search engines will autocorrect common misspellings in a query and post a note at the top that they are "Showing results for" the corrected version while giving an option (in a smaller font) to search it as entered. Most of the time, these autocorrections are shown with the message at the top but sometimes are done automatically with no notice to the searcher, especially on a mobile device.

Given the way Google and Bing autocorrect and autosuggest, when searching a database with those features, a savvy searcher should be aware of when these features need to be turned off or disabled. Expecting zero or few results but getting more? Be sure to check if some unintended autocorrection, synonymization, or grammatical variant results were returned.

Try searching a simple typo such as interperonal spacing at Google, Bing, Yahoo, or even DuckDuckGo. The results sets all default to the correction of interpersonal spacing with a notification at the top of the results about the correction. Trying the same search in Web of Science, EBSCOhost Academic Search Complete, and ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global results in zero or one result (which includes the typo). All three gave the suggestion of the correct spelling but not the autocorrected results.

When a library database does give some matches, like a number of library discovery tools do for this search, it can be especially confusing for patrons and librarians alike. Running interperonal spacing in a Primo discovery instance gives a handful results, many of which had the correct interpersonal spacing spelling visible in the results. …

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