15 Things to Ask Your Site Search Vendor

When working out your site search requirements for your ecommerce system, do you know what to look for in a site search tool?

O’Reilly Media has granted Get Elastic permission to reprint this excerpt of Peter Morville and Jeffery Callender’s Search Patterns. The following is a checklist of things you discuss with vendors when evaluating a site search solution:

System architecture
Formal description of the hardware and software components, including crawlers, indexers, data models, and query parsers.

Performance
How many simultaneous queries are supported? What’s the maximum number of sources? How about the size of the data repository?

File formats
What types of conent and data (e.g., HTML, PDF, mySQL) are supported? Can the system handle both structured and unstructured data?

Integration
Is there a standards-based Web Services API for embedding search functionality in other sites and software? Is there a list of available connectors?

Access control
Does the system support multiple levels of access for different user types and individuals? How does it manage privacy and security?

Features
How does the system handle full text and metadata? Does it support Boolean operators, wildcards, stemming, stop words, phrase and proximity searching, and spellcheck? What algorithms are used for ranking? What are the options for query refinement? Can results be saved, printed, and shared?

Implementation
What sort of expertise is required for installation, configuration, and maintenance? How does the vendor handle training and support?

Pricing model
Is the product priced by data or activity volume, CPUs, features, and/or number of unique application? How about support, maintenance, and professional services fees? What’s the total cost of ownership?

Vendor credentials
How long has the vendor been in business? How are they positioned in the market? Can we see their financials and customer references?

These are all necessary questions, but they’re also insufficient. Because there’s so much ground to cover, it’s easy to lose sight of the goal. The designer’s role is to repeatedly refocus attention on the user experience. A supplemental checklist that’s informed by an information architecture strategy and empathy for the user might include:

Speed
What will it take to ensure subsecond response in the real world? It’s worth asking this question early and often. Don’t take “slow” for an answer!

Relevance tuning
How are results ranked? Is it possible to adjust the settings to allow for popularity, content type, date, and diversity?

Navigation and filtering
Is it easy to customize sort order and limit options? Is there native support for faceted navigation? Is it fast?

Federated search
How does the system handle simultaneous search of multiple databases or indexes? What is the impact on speed? Is it possible to merge several indexes into one to dramatically improve performance?

Linguistic toolset
Is there support for thesaurus integration and crosswalking between vocabularies? How about autocategorization and entity extraction?

Search analytics
What tools are provided for measuring and understanding user behavior? is there an API that supports sharing and repurposing of this data?

Post Script

The authors of Search Patterns comment that, even in 2010, “search is the worst usability problem on the Web.”

“Search is an elephant that hides in sight because executives lack the right radar. Many in management don’t realize the role search plays in defining the user experience. They fixate on the home page, they fuss about look and feel, and they care about the content. They may even fume about findability, but they are easily distracted or misled because they really don’t understand search.”

Often, improving search functionality and usability should be a higher priority than tweaking home and product pages. But its mystique prevents ecommerce professionals from doing anything about it. Search Patterns is a helpful, easy read that will give you an understanding of how people use search, how search fits in to your overall design and information architecture, and what things you need to consider when fine tuning your search functionality.


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6 Responses to “15 Things to Ask Your Site Search Vendor”

  1. Nice checklist. Especially synonym and spellcheck is vital for e-commerce search usability.

  2. Great article. Some readers might be interested in checking-out Apache Solr, an open-source enterprise search system. I’ve seen a lot of web sites start using this in the Drupal world and it’s worth a look.

  3. Jan says:

    Linda, an overview (and comparison?) of site search vendors would be a great article!

    • Hi Jan,

      A comparison would be really helpful, but the problem is there are so many site search vendors! To really give a fair and comprehensive review to each, I would need to demo/use each vendor and also do vendor interviews. Otherwise I would be regurgitating marketing spiel from their websites, which may not be an accurate representation of the strengths and weaknesses of each tool.

      Companies like Forrester Research do bake-offs for enterprise search. The latest Enterprise Search Wave was in 2008, and compared Autonomy, Coveo, Endeca, FAST, Google Search Appliance, IBM, Inquira, Microsoft, Oracle, Recommind and Vivisio. These are enterprise search tools – so they may be too expensive for some online retailers. So solutions like SLI Systems, Nextopia and EasyAsk may be more along your lines. But like ecommerce software, which solution is best for you depends on the above criteria. You could look into the following and create your short list:

      Endeca
      Adobe/Omniture
      SLI Systems
      GSI Commerce
      Celebros
      EasyAsk
      Nextopia
      Google
      FAST
      Autonomy
      iPhrase
      Verity
      Yahoo
      Active Decisions
      Lucene (Open Source)
      Baynote
      Mercado
      Easy2
      Thunderstone

      Remember, your ideal solution is based on your requirements and search optimization strategy :)

  4. Your SEO tips are great and will surely help those in the SEO game. Please keep it going.

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