Once upon a time, Google offered an easy, ad-free way for businesses to integrate search functionality into their own websites. For a monthly fee, companies could use Google Site Search to index their websites and allow visitors to search the site’s contents. This allowed companies with limited resources to provide powerful search functionality without building their own system.
Google discontinued Google Site Search in April 2017 in favor of a new solution called Custom Search Engine (CSE). In the wake of this announcement, companies have to decide whether to try out Google’s new site search tool or move to another site search provider.
Read on to learn more about Google Custom Site Search and the pros and cons of potential alternatives to Google’s site search tools.
What is Google Custom Search Engine?
Google Custom Search Engine, the successor to Google Site Search, allows web developers to create custom search engines for their websites and external content.
The solution offers several benefits:
- Cost: It’s free to use basic features.
- Control: Developers can choose which pages from their own or other sites the search engine should index.
- Simplicity: It’s easy for programmers to integrate the search service into a website using a JSON API.
However, Google CSE can also create challenges for many businesses:
- Ads: Most sites’ search results are subject to including ads placed by Google AdSense. (Nonprofits can apply for an exemption from having to display ads.) Although website admins can prevent certain types of ads from being displayed, they do not have full control.
- Extra Costs: Blocking ads completely costs $5 per 1000 queries. If your site search is used frequently, this cost can increase quickly.
- Impact on Brand Image: Website visitors tend to dislike ads, which can be distracting and raise privacy concerns. Most ordinary website users, who do not understand how CSE works, may wrongly assume that your business is responsible for displaying the ads, which could hurt your brand’s image.
Alternatives to Google Site Search
For businesses that want more control over their search results or do not want to display advertisements in their search results, there are a number of alternatives.
Some run as on-premises platforms, while others are SaaS solutions hosted in the cloud. The solutions vary in regard to capabilities, benefits, and the industries and types of content they are best-suited for.
SaaS site search solutions
SaaS search solutions are typically the simplest for developers to integrate into their websites.
Most offer APIs that programmers can use to specify where and how a custom search tool should appear within a website, as well as which types of content it should display. The SaaS site search solution handles the rest of the work by indexing the site’s content and delivering search results automatically. Handing off the responsibility of hosting and maintenance to a SaaS provider reduces strain on internal developer teams. Those teams can be comprised of fewer people overall and spend more time on business innovations and less time keeping things working smoothly. In addition, operational costs also go down, since infrastructure such as storage and servers are no longer needed. The best SaaS providers should ensure high service reliability and be equipped to scale with your business needs.
Although all SaaS solutions confer measurable benefits over on-premise solution, there are a number of other features that might make your site search partnership even more profitable. Features such as distributed search infrastructure, multi-language optimization, and the ability to power multiple channels such as web, mobile, and voice, may help a SaaS solution to stand out among others.
There are a number of providers to choose from. Providers like SiteSearch 360, Swiftype, and, of course, Algolia serve a range of use cases. Then, there are also specialized e-commerce solutions like Cludo and Klevu. Regardless of the branding, however, you should pay attention to the pricing model (some prices vary by pages indexed and queries), personalization features, analytics capabilities, ease of customization and implementation, and the overall reliability. In addition, some all-purpose solutions have a range of integrations with a number of content management systems and e-commerce platforms. Make sure your chosen tool is willing to partner with you to provide the most tailored experience.
Alternative Solutions from top Cloud Providers
Major public cloud providers also offer custom site search solutions. These services are fully hosted in the cloud, but they differ from the SaaS options described above because they are part of larger cloud-computing platforms. These services can be an attractive search solution for companies that already use a major cloud provider for other needs, like virtual server hosting or other general-purpose cloud computing. While it may be simpler for your company to work with one less vendor, these solutions are often nearly impossible to customize to your specific business needs.
There are two popular competitors in this space:
CloudSearch, the custom search service provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS), offers a great deal of configurability and boasts advanced features, such as highlighting and natural language support. However, indexing can be a hassle, as new fields are not searchable until they are indexed, and it can only search one index at a time. Azure Search, which is hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud, offers AI-powered customized search results based partly on the same engine that drives the company’s Bing search platform. Pricing for both options depends on a variety of factors, such as storage and geographic region, and may be hard to nail down upfront. In addition, neither solution provides UI customization for business users to control the experience or analytics capabilities
“Default” or “Native” Site Search
Many content management systems (CMS) or e-commerce platforms come with a native search solution pre-packaged for your use. But you shouldn’t default to default search without making sure it meets all of your needs. Let’s look at these options.
WordPress and other CMS search solutions
If you build your website using WordPress, a massively popular open source Content Management System (CMS), you can use WordPress’ built-in search widget for indexing site content. You can place the widget wherever you want on your site and alter the search bar header. But that’s pretty much it.
Most other major CMS platforms, such as Joomla and HubSpot, also offer built-in site search functionality. The upside? One less vendor to deal with. The downside? Overall, they don’t offer a robust and personalized search algorithm, and the breadth of features is typically lacking. Luckily, most third-party SaaS search solutions can be integrated into any CMS platform with ease.
E-Commerce Platform Internal Search Solutions
Some e-commerce platforms, such as Magento, Shopify and Prestashop, also offer built-in search solutions. While these search solutions are appealing because they don’t require any additional installation or cost, they cannot provide relevant e-commerce results with the same speed and quality as a customizable, standalone site search solution. The recommended path to a robust e-commerce search on those platforms is to extend them using the plugin of a standalone search solution.
Open Source Solutions
As an alternative to the SaaS site search solutions described above, businesses can also create and deploy a search tool on their own server. But be warned, deploying an open source solution requires intensive work, as the search system needs to be built from scratch. In addition, the responsibility for implementation, maintenance, scaling and upgrading the system falls solely on the site or business. And if something goes wrong, there is no professional support service to turn to–unless you pay for it. Overtime, these costs can add up to make the total cost of ownership higher than a hosted solution.
However, these open source tools are free to download and use. For many of these tools, the open source developer community is highly active, and your company can benefit from features developed in the community. Still, this option is best suited for those with significant resources and knowledge of how to create an effective search algorithm from scratch.
Two popular open source solutions are Solr and Elasticsearch. While both solutions will work with virtually any site, you will need technical knowledge to implement and maintain them. For most smaller sites (or larger sites with higher priorities), this sort of upkeep could be an unnecessary investment. In addition, if you intend to use these solutions for consumer-grade search, keep in mind that it will require significant investment in both the backend and front-end of the site.
Choosing the Best Google Site Search Alternative
Thanks to the void left by Google site search, companies have a long list of solutions to choose from. Making that decision can certainly be difficult.
With some site search solutions tailored to specific verticals—e.g. SearchSpring, EasyAsk, SLI and Nextopia all market to e-commerce sites—it might make sense to choose a search platform designed specifically for your industry. However, many seemingly “general” site search solutions may provide all of the tools you need for success. You should make sure the solution matches your site’s needs, not just your vertical.
When it comes to site search solutions that are ready to use out-of-the-box, there are several factors to weigh when deciding which of the many options available best fits your needs:
- Search customization: How important is it for you to be able to control the results your users see? Is it critical to avoid displaying certain types of content, such as politically sensitive material or out-of-stock products? Do you want to be able to set rules that control how the search engine responds to certain types of queries?
- Analytics: Searches generate a lot of data, which can help you understand what your users want. Search platforms that provide structured tools to help you decipher and act on that data will give you a leg up in a competitive online world.
- Speed: Not all search tools are equally equipped to deliver fast results, especially when they have to parse large volumes of data. But in a search world dominated by Google, site visitors are primed for instantaneous results. Can your site search deliver the speed necessary to guarantee a positive user experience?
- Personalization: Even though two users might search for the same query, their ideal search results could be different. That is why adding a personalization layer to search results within your search platform can help to ensure that you meet your users’ expectations.
- Implementation and support: How much expertise do your developers and IT team have in setting up a search tool? If their experience in this domain is limited, it makes sense to choose a tool that requires minimal setup and provides adequate customer support.
- Maintenance: If you set up a server-side search solution on your own hardware, you will have to maintain that hardware indefinitely. A SaaS solution eliminates this need. Do you have the bandwidth and resources to maintain an in-house solution?
- Visual design: Usability and visual design of the search interface is a crucial part of customer experience. Does the tool you’re researching take this into account?
- Integrations: A tool that works with the platforms, plugins and extensions your site uses is paramount. Consider the tools you are currently using to support your site, and see if your top choices for site search integrate with those tools (or desirable alternatives). If they don’t, the road to implementation will be more challenging.
Site Search with Algolia
If you’re seeking a powerful site search solution that is simple to install and configure with little-to-no developer experience, Algolia is the leading choice. As a fully hosted, SaaS search solution, Algolia’s search functionality can be integrated into websites and mobile apps quickly and easily using APIs, advanced front-end libraries, and a crawler if need be. In addition, Algolia personalizes search results based on users’ individual needs while still delivering extremely fast performance.
To see Algolia in action on your site, watch our demo, which gives overviews all of Algolia’s premium features and professional customer support.