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Building a better iStyles shopping experience with Algolia search

iStyles, a fashion accessories provider for consumer electronics, boasts more than 200K products and 1600 designs, as well as support for over 800 devices. With the already large and constantly growing number of products offered, iStyles needs their customers to be able to find what they want quickly and easily. That’s where we come in. Here’s the scoop on how iStyles uses technology, including Algolia, to provide the best shopping experience for their customers.

The iStyles story

iStyles was originally formed in 1997 as a web development firm that offered web services and built applications and e-commerce infrastructure for companies worldwide. As such, iStyles has always been a technology company at its core and continually evaluates and leverages the best tech out there to provide an optimal shopping experience.

In 2004, after acquiring some product distribution contacts, iStyles decided to make their e-commerce store the main focus of the company and has since grown the business into the fashion accessories provider it is today.

The e-commerce challenge

The market has become very competitive over the years, and it is increasingly difficult to attract new customers in a saturated marketplace. iStyles needs to stand out from the crowd and prove to customers why we are a much better place to shop than Amazon or other online or brick-and-mortar retailers. We have built a loyal base of customers over the years but still have to continually work hard to attract new ones through marketing and other innovations.

When we first launched in 2004, we based the store on an existing e-commerce platform. The problem with using a popular e-commerce platform is that your competitors can (and will) deploy stores using the same platform. There’s no innovation—no differentiator. The other problem we faced was the rigidity of such e-commerce platforms. One size may fit many, but it will not fit all. If you need to present or link products more meaningfully or have better control over your search results, you have no choice but to customize the solution.

The technical difficulties of customization

A good e-commerce store allows customers to explore the product range available and get to what they need or want quickly and easily. We know the significant role a search engine plays in this process, but the custom search algorithms we developed to overcome the limitations of the default e-commerce platform search engine were inadequate. It was very difficult to build both speed and flexibility.

Performance is an important part of the shopping experience, and we are obsessed with making things faster, but it was a large technical hurdle as our product range and traffic grew. Searches on our previous search engine took as long as 2 to 3 seconds for basic searches. It honestly sometimes feels like we’re trying to overcome the limits of physics. And let’s be real, a good search engine is so much more complicated than simply presenting precisely matching results. We didn’t have the resources or time to build another Google from scratch.

How can we have great search with our limited resources?

We needed a search engine that would return relevant results quickly and present them clearly. We also needed better control over result ranking, a way to allow for typos and the ability to match on synonyms. So we started looking. We were looking for a solution that would allow us to deploy “really awesome search functionality” without having to re-invent the wheel or have more back-end infrastructure to worry about.

Exactly what we were looking for—Algolia

iStyles implementationWe signed on for and evaluated trial accounts on several search services, but Algolia quickly emerged as the obvious choice during our 14-day trial period. We were impressed most by the comprehensive documentation and feature set.

We designed and built our new Algolia powered search functionality from the ground up and were thrilled it took us less than a week to do so thanks to the excellent Algolia documentation and easy to use Search API clients.

Our front-end is now powered by Algolia’s JavaScript Search API and custom scripts that tie everything together. We keep the search indexes updated via their PHP API at the back-end.

It works, it really works!

Search performance is critical for us, and we’re glad to say that Algolia exceeds our expectations. There is something to be said when search performance improves from 3 seconds to 0.03 seconds. Search results are now virtually instant—they are so fast that we can update results as the user types.
With this virtually instant response, our user search experience was completely transformed. The search is a pleasure to use, and the engine returns more relevant results as we are able to index more comprehensive data with no loss in performance and have more control over how results are presented.

Algolia Isn’t just a simple search bar either. Users can search for anything they want in the search bar and narrow down the selection easily via the filter options (facets) in the left column. These facets also update virtually instantly based on what the user selects and/or types.

Users can now get to what they want more quickly and in fewer steps. We have no doubt that the Algolia search implementation was part of the reason why our conversion rates this year are consistently higher than last year’s.

We’re planning on building new sections on iStyles, and it’s likely that these new areas will be powered by Algolia at the backend.

We think you should give it a try

As developers, we are always trying to build better products. One way to do so is leveraging the great technology available to us. When we started the project to revamp the iStyles search functionality, our main aim was to allow customers to search more effectively. Algolia enabled us to not only build really good search functionality, but also essentially build a whole new way to experience iStyles.

There are options out there that may better suit some projects depending on the resources you want to throw into it, but if you’re looking for a fast, flexible and reliable backend that you can use to build your dream search engine, give Algolia a try.