Ask These Four Questions When Buying Site Search

“Search is often your last chance to keep a customer on your website before they go elsewhere to find the same product or content.” I love this quote (courtesy of the president of a digital agency). It shows us exactly why we should think of site search beyond its status as an IT-funded afterthought. Your customers need search in order to find a named item or piece of content. Or they rely on search because they can’t find what they need through the site’s menu structure. When looking to source site search solutions, organizations are faced with many options from mostly niche players and a few large vendors. How do you make sense of this? I recommend you begin narrowing the site search field by asking yourself these four key questions:

  1. Do your existing tools have sufficient bundled search capabilities? Many web content management and eCommerce vendors have embedded open source search capabilities into their core product (e.g., IBM, Intershop, hybris, Ektron, Sitecore) and some have innovated search experiences based on the open source framework. This makes it potentially unnecessary to buy a standalone search solutions. But be careful. For some solutions, embedded search only indexes and processes customer queries. It doesn’t allow for more advanced search features like merchandiser consoles or business user support for different ranking models. 
  2. Are you supporting a primarily transactional/eCommerce website? Site search has seen particular success when used for transactional sites. These organizations (think Target, Amazon.com, Zappos, Home Depot) tend to more advanced in their use of site search and often invest more than some of the heavily nontransactional sites. Many vendors (e.g. Oracle Endeca, Adobe, SDL, Nextopia, SLI) have focused heavily, and in some cases exclusively, on the retail and commerce use case. Depending if you are or aren’t focusing on commerce use cases, you can likely cut your vendor shortlist in half.
  3. Do you want a solution that you implement and “forget” or a solution that you are constantly interacting with? There’s a lot you can do with site search. Some solutions allow you to create complex business rules (e.g., if/then rules), merchandising functions, and various relevancy ranking models. Others will be automated solutions that run on their own algorithm, without the ability for business users to override beyond a boost/bury functionality. If you have good quality content and metadata (and few resources), the latter is an attractive option. But many enterprises we speak with don’t fall into this category. So if you need a search solution that business users can interact with, go with a heavier-weight solution that allows your to create your own “relevancy cocktail.”
  4. Are you willing to go open source? Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the site search vendor landscape has been the rise of open source via SOLR/Lucene. Given the fast-maturing space, organizations turn to open source for search capabilities to quickly innovate. But there are risks, like a lack of vendor support and the sheer amount of developer resources needed for implementation. For some organizations, open source just isn’t feasible, while for others, it can be an opportunity to innovate and differentiate.

This is just a snapshot of the many questions you’ll need to ask yourself when sourcing site search. I’m just wrapping up an overview of the site search market, so expect more details (and a detailed analysis of the vendors in the market) in the coming months. As always, if you have personal anecdotes, please share them below. We’d love to hear them.