What goes into a great search experience?

The Elements of Search [Infographic]
Guide

Open Source vs SaaS Site Search Guide

Is it better to select open source or SaaS for on-site search? In this guide, you’ll find out how open source and SaaS site search tools compare—and which are the top search tools to consider.

Open source or software as a service (SaaS)? This age-old dilemma never ceases to frustrate enterprise managers. Sadly, the same applies when choosing between an open source or SaaS site search tool. Enterprises today have to contend with vast amounts of information—think terabytes and petabytes—so choosing a tool to deliver the best site search experience is vital.

According to a Forrester report, 43 percent of all visitors on e-commerce sites use the search bar—and 68 percent of them won’t return if the experience isn’t up to par. To understand how important search is, Andrea Polonioli, a product manager at Coveo, notes that 30 percent to 60 percent of online shoppers perform a site search and are two to four times more likely to make a purchase than users who don’t search the site.

Search functionality is a major factor in the user experience, so it’s important to be thorough when choosing a search platform for your site. In this guide, you’ll find out how open source and SaaS site search tools compare—and which are the top search tools to consider.

Introduction to site search tools and libraries

A site search engine allows users to search for specific content or products on a website and receive quick and relevant results. Search bars are integral elements of a website, and almost every site, from tiny blogs to the world’s largest corporations, has one. But creating a great search experience requires more than a search bar.

The ideal site search functionality should be customizable to suit the needs of each company. It has to continuously index the company’s site for the most recent content and should also guide users through the website, helping them discover relevant content or products.

Open source vs. SaaS site search

Open source site search is a freely distributed, open software that is usually governed by the MIT or Apache Licenses. End users can access the search product’s source code and tailor it to their needs.

On the other hand, SaaS site search is a proprietary software model in which the software vendor maintains, hosts, operates, and provides the search functionality. Take a look at some of the core differences between an open source and a SaaS site search.

Library vs. API

Enterprises have to choose between an open source library or a SaaS API. Libraries are reusable codes that developers can leverage or extend to build a particular functionality. They make it easy to customize and tailor search experiences and functionalities to your needs. It’s crucial to note, however, that they require a great deal of coding and testing before use.

In contrast, an API provides you with an interface to quickly implement and set up your enterprise search. As a result, you won’t have to worry about maintenance since the vendor is responsible for it. However, it comes with its own drawbacks, which include limited control over feature implementation and customization.

Cost of ownership

Cost is always an important factor for any enterprise. Open source site search tools are typically free to use. This is good for enterprises with a limited budget; they won’t have to pay a premium just to get started. If they already have the necessary skill sets in-house, they can customize the search experience as much as they want. In the long run, however, open source search tools can get pricey when you factor in the costs of hosting, third-party integrations, and expert support. If it’s not carefully managed, the hidden costs can build up quickly.

SaaS search tools come with an up-front price, which can be a concern for enterprises with limited budgets. The trade-off, though, is that you won’t need to worry about maintenance, hosting, upgrades, or technical support. Over time, this can result in a lower cost of ownership, with less heavy lifting and faster time-to-market. SaaS tools are also easier to scale and maintain.

Support and maintenance

Enterprises using open source tools are responsible for maintaining, upgrading, and addressing any problems they may encounter. While this can be very time- and resource-consuming, open source tools often have robust communities that can be turned to for support. The more people using the platform, the faster it is to identify and resolve issues.

As with any SaaS product, SaaS site search vendors handle performance, upgrades, server maintenance, load balancing, and more. This allows you to focus on your business rather than worry about downtime or faults in your search system. However, if an issue isn’t resolved by the vendor, there’s no way to fix them on your own.

Customization

Every enterprise has its own specific needs and preferences, which makes customization an essential element for any brand. One of the biggest advantages of open source platforms is how customizable they are. Enterprises can access the source code and customize the tool to meet their utmost needs.

By contrast, SaaS search platforms tend to be somewhat less flexible since users don’t have access to the source code. They are limited to the customizable elements provided by the vendor. With that said, an increasing number of SaaS tools, like Search.io and Algolia, offer easy-to-use interface builders and extensions, allowing even non-technical users to customize the search UI.

Scalability and reliability

Having a platform that is easily scalable is crucial to future-proofing your tech stack. Open source site search tools are highly scalable since you have access to the source code. This allows you to extend its capabilities to meet a range of use cases. However, they often require a significant investment in developer time and resources, which can hinder growth and innovation in the long run.

SaaS search platforms, on the other hand, will perform upgrades and scale on demand without requiring additional investment of your time or money. The only concern here is that you can’t scale beyond the limits of the platform, which isn’t likely with modern tools.

Ease of use

While customization is essential, many enterprises want a user-friendly tool that isn’t maintenance-heavy and will ensure a faster time-to-market. Because open source tools require extensive custom development work to make them fit for purpose, they’re inherently complex. This is a serious concern for enterprises that don’t want to dedicate developers to work exclusively on the tool.

On the other hand, SaaS search solutions are intuitive and easy to use. They provide many functionalities out of the box, including personalization, autocomplete, analytics, and even AI-powered search. What’s more, enterprises won’t have to worry about managing the entire enterprise search tool on their own.

Implementation and deployment

Enterprises want to deliver products to the market as fast as possible. Oftentimes, this is a critical factor when choosing a site search tool. Even with an expert development team, the implementation process for open source search tools takes time. However, SaaS solutions are known for their quick setup and deployment, making them ideal for enterprises that want to ensure a faster time-to-market.

Community support and ecosystem

Open source tools draw on the contributions of communities and developers from across the globe. These communities are a great source of help when resolving an issue. But it’s important to pick a tool with an active community—otherwise, you run the risk of having an outdated or buggy solution with limited support.

While many SaaS products have a burgeoning community, these communities usually aren’t as extensive, nor can they change the tool on their own. If you choose to implement a SaaS search solution, you’ll be able to turn to the vendor for help resolving any issues you encounter.

Search solutions

This list contains some of the best site search tools available. The tools on this list have been selected based on a combination of factors, including functionality, ease of use, and feature set.

Open source options

Open source site search solutions are free and equipped to handle a broad range of features. Their biggest downside is the amount of developer time and resources needed for the maintenance and management of the solution. Even though they are highly extensible, they rely on the developer community for additional functionalities or plug-ins.

This list contains the best open source site search tools available today.

Lucene

Apache Lucene is an open source search library created in 1999 for indexing and searching full-text documents. It is considered the mother of many open and closed source search platforms and laid the groundwork for tools, such as Apache Solr, Elasticsearch, and Apache Nutch.

Lucene is a powerful search library that lets you add search functionality to any application. Plus, it exposes a simple, easy-to-use API and abstracts all complex search operations. However, it’s not without limitations. Like many other open source solutions, it suffers from poor performance when handling large volumes of data, making it difficult to scale and configure for large-scale production environments. It also lacks many modern search functionalities available on many other tools, such as cluster support, analytics, and AI-based search features.

Features of Lucene:

  • Supports multiple types of queries, such as proximity queries, wildcard queries, phrase queries, and range queries
  • Ranked, fielded, range, and nearest-neighbor searching
  • Flexible faceted search
  • Typo-tolerant
  • Query suggestions offered

For more, check out Search.io’s Lucene Alternatives page.

Elasticsearch

Elasticsearch is one of the most popular search products worldwide, and it is based on the Lucene core. Elasticsearch was previously an open source tool, but in 2021, they moved to a more restrictive open-code license. The tool appears on this list because the source code and library are still available and free to use.

Elasticsearch is designed to process high-volume data streams, analyze logs, and perform complex queries. It is flexible and scalable enough to handle many different use cases.

Features of Elasticsearch:

  • Full-text search and instant indexing across all documents, including PDF and DOCX
  • Robust and scalable to handle high-volume data
  • Active community ecosystem and support
  • Real-time analytics
  • RESTful API endpoints for all languages

For more reading, check out Search.io’s Elasticsearch Alternative page.

Solr

Apache Solr is an open source search platform developed with Java and based on the Lucene search engine. You can access it over HTTP using any language—you don’t need to write any Java code before taking advantage of Solr’s capabilities. The Solr server integrates with SolrCloud to enable distributed search and indexing, which helps to ensure high reliability and scalability.

Solr performs effectively as a website or e-commerce search engine for large amounts of distributed data. However, it isn’t ideal for handling real-time queries.

Features of Solr:

  • Full-text search
  • Faceted search
  • Extensibility through plug-in-based architecture
  • Dynamic clustering
  • REST-like API
  • Near-real-time search functionality
  • NoSQL functionality and rich document processing

For more reading, check out Search.io’s Solr Alternatives overview

Typesense

Typesense is an open source search engine built to provide a search-as-you-type experience. It provides users with several search features out of the box to enhance developer productivity. This includes an intuitive RESTful API, an easy-to-configure high-availability search service, and an advanced filtering system for precise and relevant results.

Additionally, Typesense offers a cloud service—Typesense Cloud—that enables you to provision servers effortlessly.

Search experience on Typesense

Features of Typesense:

  • Typo tolerance and synonym support
  • Faceting and filtering
  • Sorting
  • Tunable rankings
  • Federated search

Meilisearch

Meilisearch is an open source search engine built with Rust for fast and easy use. It’s built to provide end users with a powerful instant search experience. It is ideal for users looking for an affordable, typo-tolerant search engine with near-real-time results, but it isn’t a great choice for processing large volumes of data or complex queries.

Features of Meilisearch:

  • RESTful API
  • Typo tolerance
  • Fully customizable search and indexing functionality
  • Instant search function

SaaS search solutions

SaaS search solutions are hosted and maintained by the vendor. Enterprises using this solution can leverage its easy-to-use APIs to deliver many targeted search functionalities out of the box. They are not maintenance-intensive, and they require little developer effort compared to open source solutions, resulting in a faster time-to-market.

This list contains the best proprietary site search products on the market.

Search.io

Search.io is an AI-powered, developer-friendly enterprise search solution. Thanks to its cloud-native architecture, custom-built hosting, and elastic scalability, Search.io offers a broad range of flexibility and configuration options. This enables you to concentrate on your core business competencies rather than managing search at scale.

​What stands out for Search.io is its lightning-fast search experience, which delivers relevant results in milliseconds with minimal latency. Its proprietary Neuralsearch technology and RESTful APIs help to eliminate the heavy lifting involved in adding synonyms, using keyword-laden titles, using advanced search queries, or installing extra language packs.

With Search.io’s YAML-based scripts, called pipelines, users can define configuration steps for sequential execution (pipeline indexing and querying) directly to a core instead of a config.xml file. Search.io will work well for many use cases, including web or mobile apps and e-commerce search.

Search for leather jackets on Search.io

Features of Search.io:

  • Search as you type
  • Full-text search and document indexing
  • Crawling
  • Extensible functionalities with YAML-based configuration
  • Advanced machine learning, natural language processing, and reinforcement learning
  • Full hosting and highly performant solution to handle thousands of query requests per second
  • Personalization and A/B testing
  • Autocomplete
  • Search analytics and trends

Algolia

Algolia is a proprietary site search and discovery platform for enterprises to build dynamic digital experiences. It provides you with a fast, easy way to find relevant content and products on websites and apps. It also provides a customizable, hosted API for delivering content within milliseconds.

Initially developed for mobile search, the tool has evolved to support other search applications, such as websites and e-commerce.

Search experience on Algolia

Features of Algolia:

  • Multiple-language support
  • Typo tolerance
  • Faceted search and synonyms
  • Advanced AI-powered processing and analytics
  • Personalization and A/B testing
  • Seamless integration with other platforms

For more reading, check out Search.io’s Algolia alternatives overview

Searchanise

Searchanise is a powerful search solution for enterprises to improve conversions in their stores. It offers fast, smart search results using numerous flexible filter options, and it also offers solutions for search analytics, redirects, product labels, and merchandising tools.

Search experience on Searchanise

Features of Searchanise:

  • Autocomplete, typo tolerance, synonyms, and spell-check support
  • In-depth analytics
  • Multilingual support
  • Mobile-friendly
  • Personalized search results
  • Easily integrates with other extensions

Other factors to consider when choosing a site search platform

Considering the many site search options available can be overwhelming. In addition to making a choice between open source and SaaS, you should consider the following enterprise search factors and how relevant they are to your business:

  • Functionality: A good site search should provide fast and relevant results, as well as filters or sorting options, categories, breadcrumb trail, multilingual support, typo tolerance, suggestions and synonyms, and search logs.
  • Ease of use: When choosing a platform, you want it to be easy to implement and maintain. It should also provide seamless integration with other services.
  • Analytics: Without an analytics-enabled site search, it would be impossible to know your search performance. Select a platform that lets you learn from your visitors and continuously optimize your site.
  • Security and compliance: Look for a search platform compliant with the highest security standards, such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and Service Organization Controls (SOC) 2 compliance. It should also provide secure multi-tenant architecture, cluster isolation, and API keys.
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence: Having an AI-powered solution with reinforcement learning, NLP, and personalization helps you deliver more relevant results, drive conversions, and generate more revenue. Read more on how site search personalization improves revenue.
  • Reliability: Your site search plays a crucial role in customer satisfaction, so you cannot afford downtime. You want to be sure to pick a solution with a reliable infrastructure, 24/7 customer support, and a high SLA uptime guarantee.

Choosing the best site search platform

Building an unforgettable search experience for your customers begins with selecting the best solution for your tech stack and business. While it’s often appealing to go with a free, open source site search product, in many cases, you’ll end up spending more time, money, and resources to manage and maintain it. Despite this, it’s a good option for businesses with stringent budgets, custom search requirements, or an extensive developer team.

SaaS site search platforms are highly scalable, easy-to-manage solutions that require less overhead and manual management. They also enable you to deploy faster and offer more complex search features, including real-time search, analytics, and AI. As a machine-learning-powered site search solution with reinforcement learning, Search.io understands user intent and provides the most relevant results for engagement and conversion, allowing your users to find what they want, when they want it.

About the author

Alexander Fashakin is a Technical Writer and Developer from Nigeria. He holds a Master’s degree in Computer science from Shenyang Jianzhu University in China. He has published 4 academic research papers and written several technical articles. He specializes in building application products using React and writing technical content on application development, SaaS products, and programming. In his free time, he takes pleasure in cooking, traveling, and learning new languages. He also enjoys watching his favorite football team—Manchester United.

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