How to choose the right e-commerce site search tool

Matthieu Blandineau


So, your site needs an e-commerce site search solution.

Right now, you’re probably imagining the daunting task of researching, comparing, testing, and ultimately choosing a site search solution. Before you drown in side-by-side comparisons or give in to that dull headache from yet another generic demo video, ask yourself this: 

What top needs or challenges should the new e-commerce site search solution address?

  • Does it need to increase customer engagement?
  • Do you need a more simplified yet intuitive search interface? 
  • Do you want to drive more sales and conversions from search activities on your site? 
  • Are you looking for a better ROI on your search tool?

With your top priorities in mind, you can focus in on relevant features that will drive results.  Your business and customer needs can form the basis for your analysis and also help you define questions for vendors. After all, why have a site search tool if it can’t handle everything your e-commerce site currently does—as well as what it needs to do in the future? 

Once you confirm the site search tool you’re eyeing covers the basics, focusing on your needs will ensure you find the best e-commerce site search partner.

The Foundations of Great E-Commerce Site Search

Relevant Results

Reliability, Coverage, and Speed

Must-Have Capabilities for Your Site Search Tool

  1. Indexing
  2. Customization
  3. Personalization
  4. Analytics 
  5. Merchandising Tools
  6. AI and Machine Learning

Getting Your E-Commerce Site Search Tool Up and Running

Implementation Considerations

Data Evaluations

Management and Upkeep

Support Specifications


How Much Is This All Going to Cost?

Calculating the ROI of Site Search

Should You Buy or Build Your E-Commerce Search?

Finding the Best E-Commerce Site Search Partner

E-Commerce Site Search With Algolia

The foundations of great e-commerce Site Search

To be effective, all e-commerce site search tools need a few basic things:

Relevant results

The basic function of an e-commerce tool is to find and rank results that best match a customer’s query. While this seems simple enough, all e-commerce site search solutions search algorithms are not created equal. 

Some algorithms rely on simple keyword matching. Others rely on how frequently the term shows up on a page, the number of likes or reviews, or some combination of these factors. However, these methods alone won’t surface satisfactory results—for a robust search function, you need much more.

The algorithm should take into account the context of each search and present results based on textual and business relevance. To offer top-notch relevance, the tool should use ranking criteria, including: 

  1. Tolerate user typos 
  2. Distinguish between the importance of different product attributes
  3. Allow the business to set custom ranking criteria
  4. Rank results by distance, if relevant to your business 
  5. Dynamically filter results 

The search engine should present these results in order of relevance to the user

In order to deliver the most value to users, e-commerce site search should also surface relevant content alongside products. For example, product guides or blog posts about relevant current trends can appear in a search along with products. This promotes search and discovery, increases user engagement with the site, and adds value for site searchers. 

Reliability, coverage, and speed

Out-of-the-box solutions entice businesses with the promise of quick implementation. Yet, money saved on setup can compound on maintenance and upkeep if the solutions fails to deliver reliability, coverage, and speed. 

  • Speed. It’s easy to create a fast site search, and it’s relatively easy to make a relevant one. But mastering both is difficult. Seconds of delay waiting for relevant results can add up and hurt the user experience. The site search vendor should maintain extensive infrastructure to support search-as-you-type and instant search results for all of your customers without latency.
  • Global Coverage. Every website, but large sites in particular, needs the guarantee that all customers will have a stellar search experience—regardless of their location. The company should have infrastructure, such as a global distributed search network, to ensure each customer enjoys top-notch site search performance.
  • Reliability. Downtime can ruin your customer’s perception of your brand and their experience. If the vendor can’t guarantee data centers around the world to ensure maximum uptime, you might want to look elsewhere.

Must-have capabilities for your Site Search tool

Now that you have some basic requirements in mind, you need to consider some additional and advanced capabilities that can elevate the search experience for you and your customers. Let’s consider some main areas:

  1. Indexing
  2. Customization
  3. Personalization
  4. Analytics
  5. Merchandising tools
  6. AI and machine learning

1. Indexing

Pay close attention to how indexing works with each site search tool you consider. 

For some solutions, the frequency of indexing and volume of items indexed depend on your pay tier. If your site frequently adds products on a daily or weekly basis, a solution that only indexes monthly won’t fly. New products need to appear in user’s searches as soon as they are on the website—not a month later. 

If your site includes highly specialized content, look for tools that support the ability to index non-product content such as blog posts, guides, or customer reviews.

2. Customization

Many site search tools are ready to go out-of-the-box, which can be ideal for a quick implementation. The trade-off, however, is that these tools are difficult or impossible to customize. Open source solutions boast the most customization options, but are resource-intensive to implement, maintain, and update. 

Search as a service solutions generally sit right in the sweet spot with quick implementation, a high degree of customization, and lower long-term costs for maintenance and innovation. 

Consider the various configurations you might need for your business:

  1. Can you enhance UI/UX functionality to match your business case?
  2. Can you preserve customizations implemented before the solution?
  3. Can you apply custom business logic?

Your Search solution should be perfectly tailored to your business case. If the solution lacks the ability to meet your vision, it’s a good idea to drop it from your list. 

3. Personalization

Personalizing search results allows you to bring together textual relevance, business relevance, and merchandising to meet your customers’ intent. It guides what users see in the future based on past user behavior.

A more personalized search experience helps customers discover more relevant content and discover new products and resources. This leads to higher conversions, larger average cart size, higher net promoter scores, and increased customer engagement. 

Personalization features should:

  1. Be easy to implement and use
  2. Increase engagement
  3. Decrease site bounces 
  4. Improve the customer journey

4.  Analytics 

E-commerce site search tools can deliver powerful business insights. Once you have identified the goals you want to reach with your site search, look for tools that can deliver data relevant to those goals. 

Your Search tool should:

  • Help you track conversions, clicks, “no results” queries, bounce rate, search exit rate, average cart size, and more
  • Display information in user-friendly dashboards
  • Provide custom reports
  • Help you drive improvements, such as highlighting certain products, creating content to fill key gaps, and improving the results page to discourage search exits

Without Search analytics, you cannot make data-driven decisions to improve your site.

5. Merchandising tools

Merchandising is an essential component of e-commerce strategy. The merchandising tools in your chosen site search tool should be intuitive enough for site owners to re-configure relevance and re-rank factors on their own to improve the buyer experience. 

Some capabilities include, but are not limited to:

  1. Highlighting specific brands
  2. Ability to promote specific items or group of items for certain queries
  3. Promoting items in banners in search results 

When choosing a site search solution, you should evaluate how the new tool will work with your current merchandising configurations. You’ve put time and effort into developing your merchandising campaigns, so your chosen solution should be able to support those campaigns effectively. 

6. AI and machine learning

Vendors often point to machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), and natural language processing (NLP) to make their solution stand out. However, these buzzwords are only as important as their relevance and implementation. 

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing are interrelated concepts. ML and NLP are technologies that help develop and improve the AI, which in turn provides intelligence to automation. 

Some companies boast that AI can completely automate tweaks and refinements to your site search. While freeing up developer capacity seems beneficial, remember that you know your business best. Do you really want to AI to completely take over an important part of your online strategy?

AI should make suggestions and provide business intelligence that helps you make the best improvements. It should not make changes without your direct input. 

When in doubt, request a demo and ask detailed questions about how AI, ML, and NLP are used by the solution. If the demonstrator can’t explain exactly how the technology works or tries to oversell you on its abilities, you should be wary. 

Getting your e-commerce Site Search tool up and running

As you evaluate site search solutions for your E-commerce site, consider how it will be implemented on the site itself. 

Implementation considerations

If business requirements and technical needs are not well-defined, implementation can be a headache for the business and the very customers site search is meant to help. It’s essential to consider the following:

  1. What is your implementation timeline? 
  2. What is required for implementation of the chosen solution? 
  3. Do you have the appropriate developer resources to carry out implementation?
  4. Is the implementation supported by the vendor or is it an entirely self-serve process?
  5. How will the migration from your current set-up affect your current data, tracking, merchandising tools, or other customizations?
  6. Will there be any downtime during implementation?

Advance planning is the best way to ensure a successful implementation. Some solutions require you to buy servers or install software to get started; it’s important to know this as soon as possible so you can plan resources accordingly. Other solutions may be as simple as transferring some data and calling an API.

The more complicated the implementation process, the more crucial it is to take stock of developer capacity and skills and find out how involved the search provider’s teams will be. If you have a high level of customization or complex variables to consider, look for a si