What goes into a great search experience?

The Elements of Search [Infographic]
ALTERNATIVE

The Google Site Search Alternative

If you’re still using Google Site Search, Google Search Appliance, or Google Custom Search Engine — the former two were retired and the latter now includes ads — it’s a great time to move to a new search engine. The good news is that site search solutions have come a long way and provide search functionality that far exceeds GSS and GCSE.

Introduction

Google Site Search (GSS), Google Search Appliance (GSA), and Google Custom Search Engine (GCSE) were very popular products for businesses to use to add search on their sites. However, GSS was retired a few years ago and GCSE began to promote Adsense ads over customers’ search results.

If you’re still using one or the other, it’s a great time to move to a newer site search engine. The good news is that site search solutions have come a long way and provide search functionality that far exceeds GSS, GSA, and GCSE.

Which GSS alternative is best to switch to? What considerations should you have when migrating from GSS to a new site search engine? We’ll explore those questions and more below.

Google Site Search alternatives: SaaS and cloud search solutions

Before you migrate from Google Site Search to something else, you need to decide how to host your new search solution. Let’s talk about the options briefly.

SaaS search solutions

Software as a service (SaaS) is arguably the most popular option for building new search experiences. In many ways, SaaS offers the best of all worlds. SaaS benefits include:

  • Easy set up and nearly zero maintenance
  • Scalable with no infrastructure to manage
  • Frequently released upgrades and improvements
  • All-inclusive monthly pricing

SaaS solutions (like Search.io!) are built on elastic infrastructure that can scale with the business’ needs. For developers, SaaS services typically include a robust set of APIs or plugins for integrating search with your site or business metrics, and are easy to extend across domains and search collections.

See our Site Search Buyer’s Guide for 2021 for finding a SaaS search provider.

Cloud search solutions

AWS, Google Cloud Platform (GCP), Azure, and other cloud providers offer site search engines that are tightly coupled with their platforms. Cloud solutions like Amazon CloudSearch, Azure Cognitive Search, and Google Cloud Search offer some elasticity and flexibility, but they also demand higher maintenance and support.

Whereas SaaS solutions are all-inclusive, cloud users need to answer questions such as:

  • CPU: How to best optimize for performance while keeping costs low?
  • High availability and failover: How to configure search to manage high-volume requirements?
  • Usage: How to find the balance between keeping costs down while providing a high-level of service?
  • Data: How to manage backups, gather usage data, connect different services, etc.?

Whether you choose SaaS or cloud for replacing Google Site Search, what features are important to you? What is a must have and what’s a nice-to-have?

Considerations for Google Site Search replacement

One of the best things about Google Site Search was it’s no-hassle convenience for developers and user experience for website visitors! Simply copy a code snippet, add it to your website, and voila, you have Google search on your site.

There are scores of features in modern site search products. While we can’t cover all of them, we’ve identified ten of the big search features to consider for reaching feature parity when you migrate from Google Site Search.

Full-text search, indexing, and crawlers

Site search engines need to crawl all the text, images, links, and metadata on your site to make sense of it. Today’s search engines go well beyond building a reverse index. Nowadays search engines must also develop a semantic understanding of your site to build semantic search.

Site Search Heath: See how well your site is optimized (SEO) for site search crawlers

Semantic query understanding is critical to how a search engine performs. To match the power and capabilities of Google Site Search, you should select a solution that provides full-text crawling and builds a robust semantic understanding of your site’s content.

It’s also important that, when you make edits to your site or add new static or dynamic content, your crawler indexes the new content as close to real-time as possible.

Available both as a free open source download or fully-hosted through Elastic or other providers (including AWS), there’s a large number of options for getting a project started. Elasticsearch is a great fit for logging and analytics projects, but less so for a “pure” search engine use case such as site search or ecommerce search where it’s overly complex and requires a tremendous amount of expertise.


Search Relevance

Like Google’s Site Search, your search should return and rank the most relevant results. With Search.io, customers can use a live search relevance editor to preview search results before moving into production.

Search bar design

Your search box or search bar needs to fit into your site’s design. When evaluating GSS replacements, have a look at whether the new solution offers a way to customize the HTML/CSS of the search bar to match your site’s design.

In addition, you may want to evaluate a site search tool for whether it’s also designed for accessibility (this is critical for government and education sites and increasingly required for most businesses), which begins with the search box.

Auto-complete and instant search

How do you want users to interact with your site search? By default, most businesses require users to enter a complete search query, hit return, and then view results. However, search autocomplete is how Google has worked for more than a decade. It provides instant results and, using fuzzy search, can help correct for typos or misspellings as users are typing.

Nowadays too there are other options, such as instant search which displays results with previews.


Gmail-like search

Google’s Gmail has a fancy way to filter results. Known as search operators, Gmail allows users to find messages from people by typing in from: followed by the person’s name or email address. There are other operators for narrowing down results. What if you could do that with site search? With the introduction of Search.io pipelines, companies can now offer Gmail-like site search. Contact us for a demo.

Multi-language Search

Do you have users typing queries or looking for results in different languages? If so, you will want to find an on-site search replacement that supports multi-language search such as all the Latin-based languages as well as double-byte characters for languages such as Chinese or Japanese.

Document search

If your site has PDF or DOCX files, you may want to find a Google Site Search alternative that indexes the content inside of those documents and the document metadata. You should have the flexibility to determine which files are included or excluded from a search (see Rules below).

Synonyms

You say “sneakers,” I say “running shoes.” Your users are typing in search terms that may be different from how your content is written. Google is very good at handling search synonyms and fuzzy search. So, too, are modern site search solutions which should at minimum offer a way to build a synonym library.

Above, an example of Neuralsearch which uses AI models to enable context search.


Search AI

Keywords are fast being replaced with neural hashing, an approach that embeds the meaning of language in mathematics. Ask your search service whether they will support neural hashing. At minimum, your site search should support a synonym library, but with neural hashing, it's not needed for common terms.

Search Analytics

Like Google Analytics, your new on-site search engine should give you insights into search trends, which searches contributed to site conversion (signups, downloads, purchases, etc.), and which searches are returning poor results. Built-in analytics are desirable, but if you use a third-party business intelligence or analytics service, you will want to be able to connect or export your search data there.

Rules

If you like how Google Site Search performs today, but find that your new search solution returns different results, you may want to create rules to manage results.

In general, rules come in two different types:

  • Index time - changes the information stored with each record or webpage
  • Query time - dynamically changes the importance of results for a specific query

Rules can include things such as prioritizing certain types of content (such as blogs or documentation) or boosting certain results (such as top-selling products). Similarly, you may want to de-prioritize certain content.

Newer advances also allow automatic boosting of pages for specific queries or aggregations. For example if someone searches for “login”, this may be statistically more likely to be related to the “support” section of the site, therefore pages in that section will be prioritized automatically.

For all the above, you’ll want your new search provider to have a way to manage rules. It should ideally have ways to set general rules without having to write rules for every possible query. Bonus points if certain rules can also write themselves!

A/B Testing

How do you know whether the search results displayed on your site are optimized? You can look at click-through rates (CTR) and conversions in your search analytics. CTR is good for understanding broad long-term trends and conversion rates are how well your site search leads to signups, purchases, or other conversion events. With Search.io, you could design multiple search algorithms to A/B test search results both to improve CTR and conversions.

Pricing (and free-site search!)

Do free — and ad-free — search engines still exist? And, how much should a premium search engine cost? Like Google Site Search, newer SaaS search solutions are typically priced on monthly volume — either the number of queries, number of indexed records, or both.

Try before you buy

Maybe it goes without saying, but do not select a site search solution before testing it! You can even configure your new site search solution on a staging site to test the design and search results.


Wordpress and other CMS

Wordpress and other CMSes typically ship with a default search engine. Like Wordpress, many include alternative third-party search plugins. Before you select one, be sure to test it. Wordpress plugins are easy to add but can slow down a site to a crawl and it may be worth looking for SaaS tools that can be added to your site with a snippet of code.

The last word

Now that you have some options and search functions in mind, it’s time to evaluate the available platforms. Switching to a new solution should be as painless as possible.

If you’re migrating off GSA or GCSE and looking for a better search solution, try Search.io. With built-in reinforcement learning, rules engine, spell correction, and more, Search.io has a user experience that feels a lot like GSS. It includes newer features, such as pipelines and a React SDK, to provide deep customization for any site, e-commerce store, or app. We’re biased in thinking it’s the best alternative to Google Site Search, but you can be the judge when you sign up for a free 14-day trial today!

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