Interview with the CEO of search powerhouse, Algolia

Meet the man that's implementing stellar search experiences into apps and websites

July 29, 2016 at 12:00 AM Coordinated Universal Time

There have been plenty of advancements with websites, mobile sites, and apps in the past 10 years, but there is still one aspect that seems to pain many users when it comes time to scour a website for information: Search. While Google and Bing do a fine job of crawling the web for important searches like "cats doing cat stuff" and pressing questions such as, "Can you make chocolate milk with Nutella;" when it comes to individual websites and searching the contents of that particular site, search results are typically less than stellar, even the ones that are powered by Google or Bing.

You usually end up on another page with a list of generic search results and blog posts from the website you were originally on, but it can be a pain scouring through a bunch of unrelated and unhelpful search results. Algolia is setting out to change that, though. The SaaS company is bringing fast, relevant searches to websites and mobile apps, and it's a breeze to set up. We had a chance to talk with Nicolas Dessaigne, co-founder and CEO of Algolia to learn more about their product, the inspiration behind it, and their newest addition, Places. Check out the interview below!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! So, what is Algolia for those that aren't familiar?

Nicolas: Algolia is a hosted search platform. We help developers deliver a great search experience inside their apps and websites.

Google did an incredible job at educating everyone as to what a great search experience should be—instant and relevant—and conditioning them to expect this. But it is close to impossible for website or app developers to achieve these kinds of results by themselves. Search is complex and very difficult to get right.

We help developers to achieve that with unique differentiators for all important aspects of search:

  • User Experience: Algolia is designed from the ground up to maximize the speed of search and solve the pain of relevance tuning. Accessing the right piece of content on websites and apps has never been faster or more intuitive.
  • Developer Experience: Algolia is an API-centric company with comprehensive documentation and support provided by software engineers. We love to work with developers to push the search experience beyond its traditional limits.
  • Infrastructure: With 36 data centers in 15 regions, Algolia serves billions of queries weekly in under 50 ms for more than 1700 customers, including many Fortune 500 companies. Algolia is highly scalable and reliable, with up to 99.999% SLA and both server and provider redundancy.

What inspired the creation of Algolia?

We actually started Algolia with another product: a search engine able to run locally on a mobile device without relying to a server.

We saw many unanswered questions on by mobile app developers who wanted to implement Lucene (a search library) in their app. We saw an opportunity and had the necessary experience, so we set up to build a search SDK that developers could embed in their apps.

Because of the hardware constraints of smartphones such as low memory and slow processor, especially back when we started in 2012, we simply couldn’t apply the traditional state-of-the-art search engine to our use case. We had to reinvent search. The hardware limitations led us to make completely different tradeoffs than what we would have done on servers. Things we actually would never have thought of.

The market was not as good as expected and we pivoted to SaaS and a server based approach, but the choices we made while focusing on mobile really helped us to differentiate our product. It was fundamental to our later success.

For someone who might not have a lot of knowledge on coding, how easy is it to implement Algolia? Who's the ideal customer?

If you are using one of the platforms we have an integration with (Magento, Zendesk, and soon Wordpress), integration is very simple even if you are not a coder. But first and foremost, we are an API. Our main audience is developers and we want to make their life as easy as possible. We are usually an order of magnitude simpler to implement than building your own search in-house. Depending of the use-case, it can be hours instead of days, or days instead of weeks.

Before creating Algolia, both cofounders spent many years working in the field and saw how complex a search implementation could become, necessitating months of consulting. From the get-go, we wanted to make search simpler for developers. Algolia is an API-centric company with comprehensive documentation and support provided by software engineers. We consider excellent support as part of the service and always try to over-deliver. We love to work with developers to push the search experience beyond its traditional limits.

So you're "cloud search as a service," can you define exactly what differentiates cloud search from normal search?

"Cloud" refers to the fact that we are a hosted API. Our customers don't need to install and maintain anything on premise, freeing up invaluable bandwidth for their dev team.

By relying on us instead of trying to build something in-house, it's like our customers had a 50 people team solely focused on search in their organization. Our product is our lifeblood. We not only make sure it's never down, but also provides the best user experience possible.

What kind of businesses and companies are using the service? Care to name a few we might be familiar with?

Any website or mobile app with a user-facing search function is a good candidate. The most represented industries in our customers are Media, E-commerce and SaaS. Some you may be familiar with include Twitch, Periscope, Fanatics, Medium, Genius, Crunchbase, BlaBlaCar, Vevo, etc.

You've recently came out with Algolia Places - who do you see it helping the most? And how does one integrate it?

Algolia Places makes it easy for developers to turn any HTML ‹input› into an autocomplete. It's extremely simple to integrate: just a few lines of javascript in the webpage. Developers would use it instead of Google Places because it is highly customizable and can be enriched with additional data sources. One of the nice use-cases we have seen it used for, is automatically filling the many fields of an address form.

Any exciting news or updates on the horizon for Algolia that you can let us in on?

Mobile! We started as a mobile first company before we pivoted to SaaS. While we believe that it helped us to have the best API for mobile integration today, we want to go even further. You can expect some big news in a few months!

We'd like to thank Nicolas for taking the time to answer some of our questions, if you'd like to find out more about Algolia, make sure to check them out here.