If you’re reading this post, odds are you’re looking for a better site search solution to grow revenue, improve customer support, or offer a better visitor experience. Or even all the above.
Search as a service has gained popularity because it rapidly transforms sites with poor site search into search powerhouses, typically requires little to no maintenance, and it’s remarkably affordable.
So, what is this mysterious search as a service? How is it different from cloud search? How can it be optimized for your business? Let’s dig into those and many other questions below.
(Note that this article is addressing on-site search as opposed to web search engines such as Google or Bing.)
10 FAQs about search as a service
- What is search as a service?
- What are the benefits of a site search service?
- Can a site search service work for a mobile application?
- Why not use Google for site search?
- How can we customize a search-as-a-service application?
- How do search service providers index my data?
- What’s the difference between SaaS and Cloud site search?
- How do I know whether my site search is working?
- How can I optimize and improve site search?
- What criteria should be used to select a site search as a service vendor?
1. What is search as a service?
Site search is a search engine that’s limited to a specific website or related domains; search as a service includes companies (like Search.io) who offer a hosted search engine. Search as a service offers significantly better relevance and ease-of-use compared with traditional legacy competitors.
The alternatives to search as a service include:
- Built-in CMS search: Works out of the box, but little or no customization, poor relevance, and lackluster speed.
- On-premise, typically open source search solutions: Very configurable, but require server management along with engineering and IT resources to maintain.
2. What are the benefits of a site search service?
Features are going to vary among service providers, but generally site search as a service benefits include:
- Fast start: It’s incredibly easy to get started and have site search running across one or more domains in minutes.
- Configurability: Search APIs have become very robust and support custom search schemas and varied configurations.
- Full support: Like any SaaS product, site search services manage application performance, upgrades, maintenance, and more, so your team can spend more time improving search than managing uptime.
- Cost: Search as a service is very cost effective for most businesses today and can be paid for on a credit card.
- Improved relevance: Search service companies have developed sophisticated algorithms and machine learning approaches that do a better job of understanding the meaning behind a query to deliver better results.
- Search insights: Service providers offer helpful analytics for site search performance. These metrics aren’t just nice-to-know; they can help you improve search relevance, site conversion, and customer satisfaction.
- Data integration: Traditional site search engines simply leverage your site’s key terms, page headers, and metadata. Search service providers, on the other hand, can provide much deeper integration with business data such as site signups, sales, ratings, and user behavior, to optimize search results and drive site-wide conversions.
- Upgrades and improvements: New search capabilities and security patches are rolled out all the time. Ongoing improvements to the crawler, index, speed, relevance, and other functionality ensure your site search is humming with the latest under-the-hood wizardry.
- Reliability: The search provider manages uptime and backups so your engineers and IT team can focus on other priorities.
- Scalability: The search service handles scaling your search service so you don’t have to configure additional CPUs.
3. Can a site search service work for a mobile application?
Yes. Mobile applications as well as mobile browser search, which can also benefit from a search service, are great channels for your customers to access your content from anywhere. Using the same search index, a mobile application can be designed differently from your site search, and still offer the same fast, smart results as your site search.
4. Why not use Google for site search?
Google is a terrific web search engine, but not great at site search. Their core business is advertising, which is why their formerly whitelabeled search products (Google Site Search, Google Search Appliance, and Google Custom Search Engine) have all become vehicles for delivering more ads.
Google wasn’t made to be customized by individual site owners. As wonderful as their web search is, their corporate search products never made it easy to customize the algorithm or search results.
(Brief aside: If you’ve invested in search engine optimization for Google web search, the good news is that those same optimizations will help your site search engine, too).
5. How can we customize a search-as-a-service application?
Here are just a handful of the ways in which most search services can be customized to drive better business results.
- Rules: Most site search services offer a rules feature to help you to customize search results. For example, you may want to boost certain types of content to the top position (e.g. documentation) or reduce visibility of other content.
- Promotions and merchandising: If you have a new product or a limited time offer, you may want it to show up at the top of your search results for certain search requests. Combined with personalization (below) you could deliver promotions to specific end users.
- Personalization: Customize search results based demographics (e.g., location or gender), psychographics (e.g., interests), and history (e.g., previous searches or purchases).
- Connect to your data: By connecting search results with signups, ratings, sales, or other behaviors, you can improve site conversions for your business.
- Natural language search: People have been trained by Google to perform queries such as “white shoes men’s size 10” expecting to get exact matches. Newer search engines offer natural language processing (NLP) functionality that can be customized to improve results.
- Visual design: The site search bar can be customized to deliver instant results, visual results previews, filters, and more. Similarly, search results pages can also be tailored to provide better navigation and context for visitors.
6. How do search service providers index my data?
Typically hosted site search services will create a full-text search index via a web crawler. A crawler is a computer program that visits your webpages and saves a copy remotely. It also follows links around your site to ensure all your content is quickly read and made searchable. Advanced search services such as Search.io also allow code to be installed into your HTML to speed up the crawl process via instant indexing.
For sites with complex schemas or unstructured data, such as e-commerce businesses or web or mobile apps, you will need an API to build an index. The index should be appended for new pages and content edits instantly, but frequency of updates can vary from service to service.
7. What’s the difference between SaaS and Cloud site search?
The terms SaaS and cloud are sometimes used interchangeably. While cloud and software as a service search providers have many similar search capabilities, there are some night-and-day differences when it comes to working with each service.
Cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP), and Microsoft Azure offer their own search products that are typically sold in conjunction with other cloud products your company may be using. For example, if you’re building an application on AWS and want to co-locate a search engine with it, you may choose to use Amazon CloudSearch.
There are advantages to using a cloud service — everything from having control over CPU usage, lower-latency through co-location in the same compute region, and invoicing through a single entity. But, cloud services require dedicated, hands-on management. Upgrades, maintenance, troubleshooting, and more need to be done through your IT or engineering teams. Plus, features such as search crawlers, analytics, and machine learning are typically sold and managed separately.
SaaS search-as-a-service companies include infrastructure management, maintenance, upgrades, and more. They offer a complete, bundled service. Through the growing number of available APIs, search-as-a-service companies are closing the configuration gaps they may have with cloud search providers while offering greater simplicity.
8. How do I know whether my site search is working?
Let’s say you replaced your legacy search solution with a new search-as-a-service platform... how do you know it’s doing a better job?
Search analytics can help you uncover whether your search results are working. Have a look at your site search trends and click-through rate (CTR) reports. Low click-through rates may indicate that users aren’t finding what they are looking for.
A keywords trend report can help you uncover how customers are searching. Your site may contain products like “sneakers” but your users may be searching for “running shoes,” in which case you will want to create search synonyms or adjust product pages and metadata.
These kinds of reports — CTR, keyword trends, search volumes — are leading indicators, but what about your big site-wide objectives? For example, if your goal is to improve customer self-service, search activity should correlate with a reduced volume of support tickets.
Your search provider is there to help, too, and can (and should!) be able to offer advice.
More reading from the Moz blog: 5 metrics for on-site search
9. How can I optimize and improve site search?
Site search optimization can improve business success and customer happiness. Here are just a few things you can optimize:
- Spell checking: Up to 26% of searches may contain a typo or misspelling. By adding spell checking or typo tolerance, you can help end users find what they need the first time.
- Autocomplete: Autocomplete shows visitors suggestions in real-time as they type, which leads to a more intuitive user experience.
- Instant search: Want to take it one step further? Instant search uses the top autocomplete suggestions to run a query and return the top results automatically.
- Crawling and instant updates: Your visitors may abandon your site if they don’t think it has what they need. Adjusting when and how your index is updated can improve outcomes.
- Filters and facets: What if you have too many results? Filters and facets can help visitors narrow down results to find exactly what they need.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much, much more you can do to provide the best search results for users.
10. What criteria should be used to select a site search as a service vendor?
As with any SaaS service, things such as uptime, performance, price, customer support, etc. should be considered. Here are some additional search-specific questions you might ask of the providers you’re evaluating:
- Indexing: How does the service index your site (crawler, API, or some combination) and how often is the index kept-up-to-date? Does reindexing or more frequent updates cost extra?
- Ease of use: Who within your organization is using the product and how easy is it to use and maintain?
- Customizability: Can it be customized for your use case?
- Content types: Do you need to make documents (PDF and DOCX) or other content types searchable?
- Languages: Do you need to support multiple different languages?
- Design template: Does the service offer search bar and search results design templates that are easy to configure?
- Search APIs and SDKs: Does it have APIs for connecting to your data or application? Does it offer a REST API or SDK to customize the search experience?
- Machine learning: Does it offer best-in-class machine or reinforcement learning to improve search results?
- Speed: Does it deliver results fast enough for your site content and location?
Check out the Site Search Buyer’s Guide for 2021 to learn more about what to look for in a site search service.