When a website reaches a few hundred pages, site visitors can no longer rely on the site navigation to find the information they are looking for.
Site navigation simply cannot include links to every piece of content on your website. Therefore, your users have to rely on search to find information quickly.
But not all site search tools are created equal. Different search solutions have been designed for specific applications.
This guide will help you make an informed decision when it comes to choosing the right site search software for your organization. We'll cover the features to look for, the benefits of using a site search, and more.
What are the different types of site searches?
Choose a search solution suitable for your business needs, balancing your need for customization, costs, and speed.
Client-side search software
A client-side search software runs on the user's device (e.g, a browser) rather than a server. Essentially, this is the simplest form of site search you can have and is mostly used by small websites with a limited amount of content.
In this scenario, the search index comes preloaded. The client-side search software maps the keyword queried directly to the index within the browser.
The biggest advantage of client-side search is that it is fast. Since no request is made to a server, it presents information very quickly.
The search index can also be cached via CDN for even faster performance. A search would also work offline, once the search index has been loaded into the browser.
However, this comes with some severe drawbacks. Due to the limited size of the index you can download and store on the browser, this is only applicable for small websites with limited content.
Server-side search software
Server-side search software store the search index on a server. When a search query is initiated, the software sends the request to the server, which conducts the search and returns the results.
This means more data can be stored and accessed within the server, making it the ideal choice for websites and other applications with large amounts of data.
Cloud-hosted search is a great solution for those looking for an affordable, easy-to-install, and low-maintenance search tool, yet powerful enough to offer enterprise search capabilities.
cloud-based search is most popular with small-to-medium-sized organizations that lack the resources to customize and manage standalone search software.
You can save on costs as cloud-hosted search solutions eliminate the need for expensive hardware and software installation costs and often come with a subscription model.
Hosted on high-speed servers, cloud-hosted site search is often faster than other types of site search, while providers typically manage updates, maintenance, and support, which can take the pressure off your IT teams.
Having come a long way in recent years, cloud-hosted search providers now offer powerful advanced features, such as configurable search results, search analytics, and autocomplete.
Plug-in site search
A plug-in site search software is designed to enhance and customize the functionalities of the CMS’s default search engine.
The main drawback of this approach is that if you ever decide to change CMS, you will need to rebuild your site search capability from scratch, as it is tied to the CMS provider.
Custom-built site search
A custom-built site search is typically built to serve a single website which requires a very specific level of customization, scalability, and performance simply unachievable with off-the-shelf solutions.
Major digital platforms, such as eBay, Amazon, Facebook, or even Netflix all use custom-built search solutions, given the very specific requirements and the sheer size of their business.
Site search: what to consider?
Do you solely intend on indexing your website or is your content distributed across various platforms?
While most search software can effectively index a website, they may have more difficulties integrating multiple sources of content such as CRMs, databases, directories, social media, etc into a unified search feature.
By consolidating multiple sources together into a site search engine that can crawl and surface all of your content, you eliminate content silos and improve content discovery for your users.
Don’t limit your search to just one language, especially if you are a global business. Look for solutions that can index and return accurate results in multiple languages.
A good search software offers regular crawls, from weekly to just daily updates.
However, for new content that requires real-time content updates, you might want to consider hourly crawls, or even “on-demand” crawls to ensure that your content is immediately visible in your search results.
Search tools offer a standard search algorithm to get you started quickly. However, the magic happens when you can customize your search results and return even more relevant results.
- Synonym expansion – Not everyone uses the same language to describe what they are looking for. Adding synonyms for particular search queries helps you return the right results, even if it’s for a different word. For example, local council websites have to cater to the multiple terms their citizens might use to describe a ‘bin’, such as ‘trash’, ‘garbage’, ‘waste’, etc
- Tuning – Search software can let you “train” your results with an existing dataset. In practice, for each given query, you can select the expected result(s), and the search algorithm adapts its settings to deliver more relevant search results.
- Machine learning – more advanced solutions let you use machine learning and natural language processing to analyze user behavior over time and generate results that best suit the search intent of each user.
Predictive search (autocomplete)
Predictive search helps you deliver search suggestions right in the search box that are most likely to match the user intent, even before a site user completes her search.
The search suggestions are here to ‘guide’ users toward a search that returns existing results. No more frustrating ‘0 results’ response for the user, which would lead to a higher exit rate.
For an even better search experience, a predictive search can also help you suggest specific products or solutions to answer the user intent, displaying rich information such as images, descriptions, prices, and more.
For an even faster search experience, some search solutions offer 'instant search' that automatically delivers instant results as you type in a query.
No need to finish typing your query or press enter to see your results anymore.
However, note that instant search can be tricky to implement for mobile users. A very dynamic result page constantly changing behind an onscreen keyboard is a bad experience for the user.
Help your website visitors quickly navigate through your search results with faceted search filters.
Several design options can be considered, depending on your specific use case:
- Checkbox: this is the most common form of filter for search results, allowing users to precisely select only the most relevant criteria for their search.
- Tabs: tabs let a user quickly flick through different views based on pre-set criteria. However, tabs only allow you to see one ‘category’ at a time and are not as granular as checkboxes.
- Tags: tags work the same way as tabs, but don’t take as much real-estate space on the screen as tabs. They can sometimes also be combined together.
- Range: ranges are useful when results can easily be filtered by a value, such as price, size, etc
- Sort by: a sort by filter lets you ‘rearrange’ existing results rather than really filtering them. It is often used to sort results by price, recent/oldest, etc
To maximize conversion, you might want to push more relevant content higher on the search results page based on the query, or even ‘highlight’ some results so users don’t miss them.
Deliver hyper-relevant results based on specific triggers such as the user location, the time of year, the page where the search is performed, etc
A good site search solution should feel like one with your website.
Make sure - at a minimum - that the search solutions considered let you adjust features like fonts, colors, effects, animation, etc of your search bar and search results pages to ensure a cohesive look on your website.
The layout of your search results pages (list, grid, or carousel) and the information displayed on each individual result card should also be easily customizable, with plenty of options to suit your specific needs.
Users’ search behavior can offer valuable insights about your website visitors, and how to best serve them.
What are they searching for? What queries don’t return any results? What search trend can you observe? Are users suddenly searching for terms like ‘support’ or ‘cancel’, denoting a need to urgently address a crisis?
Good search analytics should give you insights that you can act upon.
Your needs aren’t likely to stay the same for long, so you want a search solution that adapts to your business.
Talk to potential site search providers and ask them how they can help you when it comes to:
- Index size – This relates to the size of data/content your users will search through to find what they’re looking for. CMS developers have different ways to deal with larger index sizes, such as splitting up data amongst servers (scalable server architecture), optimizing data structures, caching, and applying search indexing algorithms to speed up retrieval.
- Performance – How fast can your site search software return a query? Does it distribute requests across different servers to improve performance during peak load times? There are different ways it can do this, such as sending requests to the server with the fewest current connections or even using the user’s IP address to improve their experience.
- Security – Check how consistently the site search software applies upgrades, and how those upgrades are distributed. This helps your scalability by introducing new features, security patches, and performance improvements.
Search industry templates
Some site search providers also offer pre-made search templates for specific industries to speed up your implementation and get you started with tried and tested search settings.
With templates, you can immediately provide the most effective search experience to your customers without having to spend months tweaking your settings.
Search APIs let you build customized integrations that extend your search capabilities and give you the flexibility to create beautiful search UIs with any coding language you want.