If you’re in the market for a new e-commerce site search solution, you already know the importance of providing a robust user experience and relevant search results to your customers.
The right e-commerce site search provider should be a partner to your use case. Not only should you compare e-commerce site search solutions to ensure they provide essential features to meet your shoppers expectations, but you also need to ensure the solution you choose offers capabilities to meet your specific business needs. In this article we’ll walk you through how the major groups of providers — including out-the-box, search as a service, and open source — work to meet your needs.
The 8 capabilities your e-commerce site search needs
While e-commerce site search solutions boast any number of features, here are eight fundamental capabilities your site absolutely cannot succeed without:
First and foremost, the solution must provide contextually relevant search results to users so they can easily find what they are searching for. The e-commerce search engine, therefore, must be able to break down complex semantics and grammar, handle synonyms and misspellings, and intelligently order results. It also must enable you to rank results based on business needs, priorities, and you want to optimize for, such as number of sales, margins, and more.
Relevant results are useless if the site search doesn’t return them in a timely manner to customers. Today’s internet users are accustomed to fast results.Slow websites frustrate users, driving them to a competitor’s site. The e-commerce search engine should optimize computational complexity and reduce network latency.
3. Reliability and scalability
E-commerce sites need high uptime to ensure that users in different time zones can make purchases at all times of the day. Similarly, the best e-commerce search solution for your business must be highly available, and indexes must be up to date. The system must be able to scale to handle growing catalog size, user count, and content types.
4. Integration with major e-commerce platforms
To avoid significant custom development work, site search systems must be able to easily integrate with e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, Magneto, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and WooCommerce. Ideally the integration should be in the form of a simple plugin so marketers or business owners can easily tweak ranking factors and maintain the system as they need to.
Optimizing site search requires ongoing maintenance and tuning and being reactive to your customers’ needs. When searching, shoppers directly express their intent with their actions. Search analytics can also generate valuable insight for the rest of the business, in order to improve the catalog, optimize the SEO strategy, etc. E-commerce operators must be able to track conversion metrics, keywords that are not returning results, keywords that are not converting, and so on. A site search system should make it easy for non-technical users to monitor and analyze site search data.
In addition to showing relevant results for a user query, a site search system should provide results that are relevant to the specific user making the query. For example, if a customer of a clothing brand exclusively buys women’s clothes, it is reasonable to assume that she will be interested in women’s clothes going forward and can prioritize search results to show these items first. Personalization can increase customer trust in a brand and creates opportunities for cross-selling and upselling.
7. Experimentation and testing
Small changes to the experience can make a big difference in conversion rates. Therefore, a site search system should allow for A/B testing so you can test out changes and improvements before releasing them to all site visitors. The system should also ensure that the test is distributed randomly to users to avoid introducing any other biases that may add statistical noise to the tests.
8. Built-in merchandising tools
Merchandising tools allow e-commerce businesses to curate and promote specific products or categories of products. This can be done by showing certain promoted products first in search results and by emphasizing the result with different UI components. A site search system should allow for configuring search rules to easily run these types of promotions.
Comparing the top e-commerce providers
The 8 capabilities form the foundation of a successful site search solution. Now let’s look at the three main groups of providers and the benefits they can offer to an e-commerce site.
Many major third-party platforms offer e-commerce site search that is ready out-of-the-box. They can directly integrate into e-commerce platforms such as Shopify and Magento with minimal technical expertise or configuration, and they provide the general capabilities that users expect without significant development overhead. Providers include Cludo, Site Search 360, AddSearch, HawkSearch, and others.
Pros of out-of-the-box solutions
Ease of deployment: The biggest advantage of out-of-the-box solutions is that they are quick and easy to set up. They are designed to easily plugin into e-commerce platforms and require minimal upfront configuration or customization.
User-friendly dashboards and analytics: These tools often provide useful dashboards for analyzing common search queries to help e-commerce operators adjust their product offerings to accommodate user tastes. By tailoring the experience specifically to the e-commerce use case, these dashboards are immediately relevant and don’t need custom configuration.
Cons of out-of-the-box solutions
Limited customizability: Plug-and-play solutions solutions are one size fits all and are not tailored to specific business cases. The providers make a number of assumptions about use cases which limits flexibility and the amount of personalization that can be built into the system to provide customers with more contextually relevant content. It can be difficult to customize the store’s search UI, which makes it challenging to make it fit to your brand.
Limited search functionality: If, for instance, you wanted to index other types of content – such as blog posts, videos, FAQ, etc. – then you’ll likely have trouble with the out-of-the-box solutions that are built specifically to index products and product categories. Handling other types of content is out of the scope of these offerings.
Search is a black box: Out-of-the-box solutions are effectively black boxes and provide little indication of why searches are ranked in certain ways or how they’re handling complex search queries. This is particularly an issue for domain-specific industries that need to be able to customize and tune search results to provide more accurate results.
E-commerce specific solutions
While this might mean the search tool can support additional UX for filtering searches by categories or recommended products, it doesn’t always mean it will be the best fit for your use case.
These e-commerce specific tools sometimes lack key personalization capabilities and merchandising tools that top e-commerce sites need to drive conversions. This greatly limits the ability to promote partner products, push new product lines, or nudge users toward higher margin goods. As any large e-commerce player knows, these are essential tools for long-term growth of a brand.
Search as a service solutions
Search-as-a-service offerings provide quick deployment, while affording more flexibility for different use cases and customization. These offerings handle all the complexity of indexing and technical maintenance, allowing operators to focus on fine-tuning their results and providing a rich, relevant search experience to customers. Algolia is an example of a search-as-a-service solution.
Pros of search as a service solutions
Multi-channel user experience: Search-as-a-service offerings typically provide a great multi-channel user experience. This includes not only desktop and mobile, but also mobile apps, voice search, and even in-store. This can be extremely valuable and cost effective, as search becomes the core of the navigation and exploration experience for customers.
Significant customization possible: Most of these offerings also allow for significant customization of both the UI and the search relevance. For example, custom rankings and synonyms can allow e-commerce operators to tune search results to be much more domain specific and provide contextually relevant results to their users. Furthermore, different content types can be integrated into the search results to allow users to explore the whole site, not just products.
Cons of search as a service solutions
Some technical ability needed: Implementing a search-as-a-service offering does require some technical ability to implement and customize. However, implementing them does not typically require any search experience. Rather, developers simply need to know how to integrate SDKs and do some simple programming to configure and embed the front-end components.
Ongoing costs: As these are hosted products, they have ongoing subscription fees to cover technical costs. This fee covers the ongoing maintenance and hosting of the engine, as well as continued innovation and the release of new features. While the fee for search-as-a-service tools may be higher than out-of-the-box tools, e-commerce sites get the benefit of scale: search-as-a-service can often provide greater scalability at a lower cost of ownership than if you build and maintain the tool yourself.
Open source solutions
The most flexible way to create site search is using open source tools such as ElasticSearch and Solr. These tools are extremely customizable and often have robust developer communities to help with technical issues in development.
Pros of open source solutions
Ultimate flexibility and control: The primary advantage of open source search solutions is the flexibility to program any use case. With the sufficient developer knowledge, the tools can be customized and tuned to make searches very relevant to end-users.
Initial Hosting and infrastructure: Furthermore, hosting can be optimized to reduce ongoing costs. For instance, when testing and developing the system, a search cluster could run on a single small virtual machine, which will be cheaper than the subscription fees of hosted search solutions. Note, however, that scaling these systems in a cost-effective manner requires significant technical experience, as they are complex distributed systems with a number of failure modes that can affect availability.
Cons of open source solutions
Technical expertise and know-how: The primary issue with developing a search system from open source technology is the significant developer experience needed to not only build the system from scratch, but also to maintain and operate it in an ongoing basis. Development teams with this level of expertise are expensive and must be diligent about scaling the systems appropriately to ensure high levels of reliability and availability.
Functionality must be built from scratch: None of the UX tools or functionality of the other solutions – such as merchandising or personalization – exist out of the box with open source solutions and therefore those features must be built and maintained as well. This is not only expensive, but also requires ongoing development to ensure the UX is keeping up with industry standards.
Ongoing development: Open source solutions lack a good way to iterate and experiment. Whenever a business user wants to try a new feature or change, they’ll have to work with the development team to scope out the project and will likely require waiting for the feature to be developed, tested, and deployed. This can be a big drag on growth.
Finding your e-commerce site search partner
A rich search experience is essential for any e-commerce business to succeed. Algolia provides all the tools necessary to quickly and cost-effectively implement successful e-commerce site search. See how Algolia can help your e-commerce site grow with a personalized demo.