When users visit your site, they want to find relevant content as quickly as possible. And after pouring resources into perfecting your site, you want to ensure visitors can find what they need with as little effort (and frustration) as possible.
Federated search is a powerful tool to improve your site search and benefit your overall business. But with great power comes unique challenges. With enough forethought and a clear plan, your site can reap the benefits and minimize the pain points associated with federated search.
What is federated search?
Federated search is a search technique that involves indexing multiple data sources at once, then presenting this variety of results to users in one unified interface .
Most traditional search methods only indexes a single data source at a time. For example, a user might only be able to search through all of the HTML pages on a site or only the files stored inside a database. But with federated search, you improve the likelihood of users finding what they need on the first attempt by including more data sources.
There are multiple possible approaches to building a federated search, and the underlying architecture can vary. However, all federated search solutions share the same core feature of allowing users to search many data sources using one search process and interface.
Benefits of federated search
Thanks to the ability to consolidate and centralize the search process, federated search offers a range of benefits for both the site and the site visitors.
Federated search offers a number of benefits for your website:
Improves customer engagement
By delivering a simpler, more efficient user experience, federated search increases customer engagement and satisfaction rates. Federated search also improves discoverability, by providing the most relevant information in an intuitive format and even, at times, surfacing content a user didn’t even know they needed.
With a federated search interface, visitors reach their desired destination with fewer clicks overall. The result? Users stay on your site longer, rather than leaving due to dissatisfaction. This ultimately increases the click through rate and the chances of a successful conversion.
Increases search coverage and scope
With federated search, you can make all of your content easily searchable using a single tool. It eliminates the need to set up and manage multiple search tools for different types of content. Your single tool can be much more robust and comprehensive than each individual tool.
Less is more when it comes to security. In other words, the fewer applications and databases that need management, the fewer opportunities there are for your systems to be compromised. Because federated search means you only have to maintain one search engine, there are fewer security risks to worry about.
Better search relevance
The federated search interface allows you to decide how each distinct type of content appears in the search results. With several search engines, defining the relative importance of each type of content is not possible. But with federated search, you can dynamically establish the importance of different content assets, determining, for example, if products should show up higher than blogs posts in the results.
Federated search also benefits your users in several important ways:
Streamlines the user experience
For a site visitor, navigating a site map to look through a wide catalog of products can be tedious and ineffective. With federated search, users need only to know where the search box is in order to look for anything, no matter where it is on your website. You provide a single unified experience across any online properties, such as blog posts, FAQs, user-generated content, and other relevant data.
Offers easy-to-interpret results
Federated search engines can be configured to use methods like highlighting to help users interpret search results from different categories. In this way, federated search makes it easier for users to interpret complex information, even if the information includes multiple types of data.
Overall, federated search makes it easier and more efficient for users and sites alike to work with the range of data sources that many organizations now maintain.
Challenges of federated search
Federated search offers so many benefits because it is more sophisticated than traditional, simple search. But with that complexity and sophistication come a few new and different challenges. They can be addressed, but they require some advance planning.
For your company, those challenges could include:
Although a federated search solution is easier to maintain in the long run than multiple independent search tools, it often takes more upfront work to implement. Implementing federated search requires an initial investment of time and resources. Using a third-party federated search partner to create and implement the federated search architecture may consume less internal time, but will still require upfront investment.
Data source inconsistency
You can use federated search with virtually any type of data source. However, if your data sources vary widely in type and structure, the index schema will as well. Thus, the relevance configurations will need to be fine-tuned according to the data source.
If you run the same search across multiple data sources, you increase the risk that some of the data you search will be duplicated. For example, you might have an HTML Web page and a PDF file that contain identical information, and you don’t want to present duplicate search results to your users. Fortunately, there is an easy way to address this challenge: deduplication, or the identification and elimination of redundant data. You can implement deduplication within your search tool.
For users, common federated search challenges include:
Too many results
Because federated search draws on so many data sources, there is a risk that your users will be presented with so many results that they will struggle to find the most relevant ones. However, you can address that risk by taking steps to optimize the relevance of your search results. Designing a user interface that makes results easier to interpret can help, too.
Federated search may also not perform as fast as search tools that have to work with only one type of data source. That’s why it’s important to conduct search performance testing to ensure that your federated search solution meets users’ expectations.
How to choose a federated search solution
Choosing the right federated search tool requires taking inventory of your company’s needs, your users’ needs, your existing site architecture, and your IT capabilities. Consider the following areas as you evaluate federated search options:
What specifically is your business hoping to get out of federated search? Is ease of implementation more important than performance or coverage? Or is the usability and performance of the end product more important than the implementation process? If your business depends on search, like eCommerce sites, how important is reliability and uptime?
The best federated search site search solutions should provide hassle-free implementation (either through hands-on implementation or expert guidance) and unparalleled performance.
Which benefits will federated search bring to your customers? Are you trying to simplify their experience on your website, increase engagement, help them understand complex search results more effectively, or do all of this at the same time? What features does the platform offer to help customers navigate results, such as highlighting or categorizing search results?
Make sure your federated search provider understands your priorities and offers features that address them.
Search engine features
Consider the specific features offered by the federated search solution that you choose, and how those features reinforce your goals. For example, your federated search tool should have the ability to show different types of results in the same search box. It should easily index (and structure, if necessary) different types of content for the search, even from various websites or CMS installations.
Before you choose a federated search provider, find out what features they offer to help you accomplish these goals, and any other objectives for your site search.
Find the federated solution for your site
For users and companies alike, federated search offers many benefits, ranging from greater simplicity and convenience to tighter security. But it also presents some special challenges that you need to consider in order to implement a federated search solution that best fits the needs of your business and your customers.
As you evaluate federated search solutions, consider Algolia. With lightning-fast search results, extensive customizability and support for virtually any type of data source, Algolia makes it easy to build an effective federated search solution regardless of the type or scope of your.