Comparing the best e-commerce search solutions

Ecommerce site search has the power to boost visitor experience, build customer loyalty, and grow on-site conversion rates. According to one study, visitors who use search generate around 30-60% of all ecommerce site revenue.

Despite the potential impact of improving on-site search, only 15% of companies have resources dedicated to optimizing it. 

Amazon profits and why ecommerce search matters

On-site conversion rates hover at around 3% industry-wide, but Amazon.com enjoys a conversion rate that is five times the industry average (it’s even higher for Prime Members). Search is vital at the world’s largest marketplace for finding anything, so naturally Amazon has invested heavily in search engineering for 20 years; today, more than 1,500 people work at some capacity on Amazon’s site search.

amazon conversion rate average

Whether you’re a marketplace, retailer, or brand that competes directly with Amazon, there’s good news: you don’t need to hire thousands of search engineers. Today’s off-the-shelf ecommerce search engine technologies can give you a leg up without breaking the bank.

Next, we’ll discuss two things: the key elements of site search and the kinds of tools to help you build a great search experience. 

The modern ecommerce stack

In 2021, about 50% of retailers said they planned to spend more time developing their own site search capabilities. 

Newer search solutions can replace the default search engine that’s shipped with your ecommerce software, or allow you customize search within a headless commerce architecture. Search engines can easily plug into a highly interdependent tech stack of the following critical back-end applications:

  • Ecommerce platform / CMS: the core engine of your customer-facing ecommerce solution that manages everything from product page design to customer ratings
  • PIM: a product information management system to manage and share content between systems
  • Tagging: a product tagging solutions enrich medata for more accurate search
  • Inventory: an ERP system that manages your inventory
  • CRM: a central place to store your customer information across all touchpoints and interactions
  • Payments: an online payments processing solution

To be effective, search needs to work across the different systems that make up your ecommerce business. It needs to be able to search across your product catalog, check your inventory for out-of-stock items, leverage visitor characteristics from the CRM, and display updated pricing information. Plus, it needs to do all of these things in milliseconds.

The challenges of ecommerce search

Successful ecommerce search requires a multi-faceted approach. Below, I’ve outlined some of the key problems that retailers face along with the kinds of solutions broadly available today. 

As Baymard Research points out, even many of the largest retailers and brands in the world haven’t solved some more basic search challenges like spell checking. There are many other basic and advanced capabilities required for successful search.

The 8 capabilities your e-commerce site search needs

While e-commerce site search solutions boast any number of features, here are eight fundamental capabilities your site absolutely cannot succeed without:

1. Relevance

First and foremost, the solution must provide contextually relevant search results to users so they can easily find what they’re searching for. The ecommerce search engine, therefore, must be able to break down complex semantics and grammar, handle synonyms and misspellings, and intelligently order results. It must also enable you to rank results based on business needs, priorities, and metrics such as number of sales, margins, and more. 

Newer semantic search solutions powered by vectors (a kind of machine learning) offer even more powerful query processing. By combining vector search and keyword search algorithms (what we call hybrid search), retailers can get incredible results out of the box.

2. Speed

Both Google and Amazon conducted studies that showed how even a 100 millisecond lag negatively impacts search revenue. Relevant results are useless if the site search doesn’t return them in a timely manner to customers. Today’s internet users are accustomed to fast results. Slow websites frustrate users, driving them to a competitor’s site. The ecommerce search engine should optimize computational complexity and reduce network latency.  

For optimal speed and usability, it’s best to:

  • Add autosuggest (also called autocomplete) to the search bar to display results as users type their queries and fix typos automatically
  • Offer instant search with product images
  • Dynamically refresh results as users select different filters and facets

3. Reliability and scalability

Ecommerce sites need high uptime to ensure that users in different time zones can make purchases at all times of the day. Similarly, the best ecommerce search solution for your business must be highly available, and indexes must be up to date. The system must be able to scale to handle growing catalog size, user count, and content types.

4. Integration with major e-commerce platforms

To avoid significant custom development work, site search systems must be able to easily integrate with ecommerce platforms such as Shopify, Magneto, BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and WooCommerce. Ideally, the integration should be in the form of a simple plugin so marketers or business owners can easily tweak ranking factors and maintain the system as they need to. 

5. Analytics

Most businesses and ecommerce websites run Google Analytics for website optimization, and the data they contain about your online store is very valuable, but it’s not always helpful.  The search analytics that come with a site search solution can pinpoint specific search terms and queries for improvement for your catalog based on conversion rates and missed opportunities. 

Ecommerce operators must be able to track conversion metrics, such as keywords that are not returning results, not leading to a sale, or other significant action. A site search system should make it easy for non-technical users to monitor and analyze site search data.

6. Personalization

In addition to showing relevant results for a user query, a site search system should provide results that are relevant to the specific user making the query. For example, if a customer of a clothing brand exclusively buys only women’s clothes, it’s reasonable to assume that she will be interested in women’s clothes going forward and can prioritize search results to show these items first. Personalization can increase customer trust in a brand and creates opportunities for cross-selling and upselling.

7. Experimentation and testing

Small changes to the experience can make a big difference in conversion rates. Therefore, a site search system should allow for A/B testing so you can test out changes and improvements before releasing them to all searchers. The system should also ensure that the test is distributed randomly to users to avoid introducing any other biases that may add statistical noise to the tests.

8. Built-in merchandising tools

Merchandising tools allow ecommerce businesses to curate and promote specific products or categories of products. This can be done by showing certain promoted products in search results and by emphasizing the promotion with different UI components. A site search system should allow for configuring search rules to easily run these types of promotions.

Comparing the top e-commerce search deployment options

These eight capabilities form the foundation of a successful site search solution. Now let’s look at the three main groups of providers and the benefits they can offer to an ecommerce site. 

Out-of-the-box solutions

Many major third-party platforms offer ecommerce site search that is ready out of the box. They can directly integrate into ecommerce platforms such as Shopify and Magento with minimal technical expertise or configuration, providing the general capabilities that users expect without significant development overhead. Providers include Cludo, Site Search 360, AddSearch, HawkSearch, and others.  

Pros of out-of-the-box solutions

Ease of deployment: The biggest advantage of out-of-the-box solutions is that they’re quick and easy to set up, and designed to easily plugin into ecommerce platforms, with minimal upfront configuration or customization.

User-friendly dashboards and analytics: These tools often provide useful dashboards for analyzing common search queries to help ecommerce operators adjust their product offerings to accommodate user tastes. By tailoring the experience specifically to the ecommerce use case, these dashboards are immediately relevant and don’t need custom configuration.

Cons of out-of-the-box solutions

Limited customizability: Plug-and-play solutions are one-size-fits-all and are not tailored to specific business cases. The providers make a number of assumptions about use cases which limits flexibility and the amount of personalization that can be built into the system to provide customers with more contextually relevant content. It can be difficult to customize the store’s search UI, which makes it challenging to make it fit to your brand. 

Limited search functionality: If, for instance, you wanted to index other types of content – such as blog posts, videos, and FAQs – then you’ll likely have trouble with the out-of-the-box solutions that are built specifically to index products and product categories. Handling other types of content is out of the scope of these offerings.

Search is a black box: Out-of-the-box solutions are effectively black boxes and provide little indication of why searches are ranked in certain ways or how they’re handling complex search queries. This is particularly an issue for domain-specific industries that need to be able to customize and tune search results to provide more accurate results.

Ecommerce-specific solutions

A few of these out-of-the-box offerings, such as Klevu, SearchSpring, and Nextopia, bill themselves as specific to ecommerce. 

While this might mean the search tool can support additional UX for filtering searches by categories or recommended products, it doesn’t always mean it will be the best fit for your use case. 

These ecommerce specific tools sometimes lack key personalization capabilities and merchandising tools that top ecommerce sites need to drive conversions. This greatly limits the ability to promote partner products, push new product lines, or nudge users toward higher margin goods. As any large ecommerce player knows, these are essential tools for long-term growth of a brand.

Search as a service 

Search-as-a-service offerings provide quick deployment for an online store, while affording more flexibility for different use cases and customization. These offerings handle all the complexity of indexing and technical maintenance, allowing operators to focus on fine-tuning their results and providing a rich, relevant search experience to customers. Algolia is an example of a search-as-a-service solution. 

Pros of search-as-a-service solutions

Multi-channel user experience: Search-as-a-service offerings typically provide a great multi-channel user experience. This includes not only desktop and mobile, but also mobile apps, voice search, and even in-store. This can be extremely valuable and cost effective, as search becomes the core of the navigation and exploration experience for customers.

Significant customization possible: Most of these offerings also allow for significant customization of both the UI and the search relevance. For example, custom rankings and synonyms can allow ecommerce operators to tune search results to be much more domain specific and provide contextually relevant results to their users. Furthermore, different content types can be integrated into the search results to allow users to explore the whole site, not just products.

Cons of search-as-a-service solutions

Some technical ability needed: Implementing a search-as-a-service offering does require some technical ability to implement and customize. However, implementing them does not typically require any search experience. Rather, developers simply need to know how to integrate SDKs, or APIs, and do some simple programming to configure and embed the front-end components.

Ongoing costs: As these are hosted products, they have ongoing subscription fees to cover infrastructure and usage costs. This fee also covers the costs of continued innovation and the release of new features. While the fee for search-as-a-service tools may be higher than out-of-the-box tools, ecommerce sites get the benefit of scale: search-as-a-service can often provide state of the art features and enhancements at a lower cost of ownership than if you build and maintain the tool yourself. 

Open source solutions

The most flexible way to create site search is using open source tools such as ElasticSearch and Solr. These tools are extremely customizable and often have robust developer communities to help with technical issues in development.

Pros of open source solutions

Ultimate flexibility and control: The primary advantage of open source search solutions is the flexibility to program any use case. With sufficient developer knowledge, the tools can be customized and tuned to make searches very relevant to end-users.

Initial hosting and infrastructure: Furthermore, hosting can be optimized to reduce ongoing costs. For instance, when testing and developing the system, a search cluster could run on a single small virtual machine, which will be cheaper than the subscription fees of hosted search solutions. Note, however, that scaling these systems in a cost-effective manner requires significant technical experience, as they are complex distributed systems with a number of failure modes that can affect availability.

Cons of open source solutions

Technical expertise and know-how: The primary issue with developing a search system from open source technology is the significant developer experience and time needed to not only build the system from scratch, but also to maintain and operate it on an ongoing basis. Development teams with this level of expertise are expensive and must be diligent about scaling the systems appropriately to ensure high levels of reliability and availability. 

Functionality must be built from scratch: None of the UX tools or back-end functionality of the other solutions – such as merchandising or personalization – exist out of the box with open source solutions and therefore those features must be built and maintained as well. This is not only expensive, but also requires ongoing development to ensure that each component of the system is keeping up with industry standards.

Ongoing development: Open source solutions lack a good way to iterate and experiment. Whenever a business user wants to try a new feature or even make a small change, they’ll have to work with the development team to scope out the project and will likely require waiting for the feature to be developed, tested, and deployed. This can be a big drag on growth.

Finding your ecommerce site search partner

A rich search bar experience is essential for any ecommerce business to succeed. Algolia provides all the tools necessary to quickly and cost-effectively implement successful site search for an ecommerce website. See how Algolia can help your ecommerce site grow with a personalized demo.

About the authorsMatthieu Blandineau

Matthieu Blandineau

Sr. Product Marketing Manager
Jon Silvers

Jon Silvers

Director, Digital Marketing

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