Google & Amazon Do Search Right: Now You Can, Too

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This article was sponsored by Algolia. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who make SitePoint possible.

When companies think about search, they think about Google. They invest heavily in SEO & SEM to drive traffic – meanwhile, their own search experience remains neglected. Default search options on platforms like Shopify and WordPress pale in comparison to Google & Amazon; the problem is, when most people think of improving their own site search, they think about hiring a team of search engineers to create an ultra-personalized, machine-learning, predictive search experience – either invest heavily now or stick with the default search, right? Wrong.

It’s a bad idea to invest in driving traffic to your site if the customer journey inside your site is not optimal – and if you’re thinking “my search traffic is a low percentage of my site, so why should I worry about it?” then your site search could probably be improved. Remember: in 2016, 93% of all Internet experiences started with search.

The biggest mistake you can make isn’t thinking “search isn’t important to my customer’s digital experience;” it’s thinking that it takes a team of search engineers to make a great search experience.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: in 2017, search isn’t about back-end, it’s about experience. The future of great search experiences is in the hands of UX designers & front-end engineers.

Since 2012, Algolia has been working to enable any engineer to build great search experiences on top of our hosted search engine, powering search on thousands of websites & products around the world. During that time, we’ve educated our customers about what is necessary to have a great search experience – there’s more to great search than fancy algorithms or ultra-customization.

Search is a very intuitive process. Users don’t analyze a search experience feature-by-feature — in fact, most of your product’s users would likely say that the search bar itself is the feature, and not the various components that make up that search bar — which means that your users intuitively know after the first try whether your search is great or decent. The difference between decent search and great search is in the three pillars of search – Speed, Relevance, and Design.

Pillars of Search

Milliseconds Matter

Algolia provides 99% of search results in under 35 milliseconds, anywhere in the world – just ask our customers. Answering the question “How fast is fast enough?” requires a bit of “How” and a bit of “Why,” but let’s start with the latter:

Why Milliseconds Matter:

  • 100ms of latency costs Amazon 1% of its Sales
  • 500ms of latency costs Google 10% of its traffic
  • 10 seconds: the attention span of a digital consumer

It’s a race against time for you to keep your audience engaged. At any given step in their journey, users will churn if they sense stagnation – especially so with Search, where they have already subconsciously benchmarked your search experience against Google & Amazon.

You’re either as fast as users expect, and they won’t even notice it, or you’re slower, and they will.

In a conversation, if someone responds to your question quickly, the conversation continues fluidly; if someone stares idly at you long enough for you to ask yourself “what’s taking them so long?” the conversation is broken, and the conversation subject changes from what you were interested in to “why is this taking so long?”

The “How” is a bit more operational. There are three things that count when it comes to how fast a search query returns results:

  1. The distance the query must travel
  2. The size of the records that must be queried to determine relevance
  3. The complexity of the algorithm used to determine relevance

For in-house solutions, the distance of the query to a user depends on where you keep your hosted site servers. There’s no point in having servers all over the world to optimize site load speed, so you’ll want to replicate your search solution across key markets to optimize search speed.

The blink of an eye is roughly 180 milliseconds

Creating Instant search – an as-you-type search experience where results appear immediately following the keystroke – requires delivering results faster than the blink of an eye. You should aim for 99% of your queries displaying in under 35ms.

For hosted solutions like Algolia, you’ll want to make sure you have a Distributed Search Network (DSN) – a CDN for your search bar – which allows you to replicate your search index across up to 50 servers in every corner of the globe, depending on where your users are coming from.

Keep Those Records Small

The smaller the record size, the faster it can be passed through the engine. It’s faster for search engines like Algolia to search 1 Million one-paragraph text blocks than 10,000 100-Paragraph text blocks — It can also increase relevancy, pointing to where in a given text the query is matched.

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Original article title: “Google & Amazon Do Search Right: Now You Can, Too”.
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