Custom search engine

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
February 2, 2015
Tags: rant 34

Many e-com­merce web­sites im­ple­ment their own search en­gine. Many do it wrong, so wrong that they lose po­ten­tial cus­tomers they won't lose if they had no search en­gine at all.

Why a cus­tom search en­gine?

Google pro­vides an easy to im­ple­ment way to search for stuff with­in Google on your web­site, from your web­site. Ken Rock­well site is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of such im­ple­men­ta­tion. The web­site con­tains a text field and a search but­ton. When en­ter­ing search terms and press­ing the but­ton, the user re­mains on the web­site and sees the search re­sults, but those search re­sults are ac­tu­al­ly pop­u­lat­ed by Google.

So why cre­at­ing a cus­tom en­gine when Google Search can be added with­in min­utes to a web­site?

Most web­site own­ers be­lieve that Google-pow­ered search looks cheap, while a cus­tom search looks pro­fes­sion­al.

To be frank, many cus­tom search en­gines look cheap. This is not just my hum­ble opin­ion: the as­ser­tion is based on the rules of in­ter­ac­tion de­sign and graph­i­cal de­sign which makes them feel cheap. As a de­vel­op­er, I know that be­hind the scenes, a few PHP coders spent sleep­less nights and wast­ed thou­sands of dol­lars of their com­pa­ny or their cus­tomers to de­vel­op those fea­tures, but sor­ry, the smell of cheap­ness is still there.

In the same way, Google-based search doesn't nec­es­sar­i­ly feel un­pro­fes­sion­al. It ful­fills the busi­ness need con­sist­ing of let­ting cus­tomers to search for stuff, and it ful­fills it very well. That's as sim­ple as that.

How to make a search en­gine a fail­ure?

Many cus­tom search en­gines are sim­ply brain dam­aged. I don't know why they were done in the first place, nor for whom. I don't know how pro­gram­mers were test­ing the search en­gine (ob­vi­ous­ly, they weren't), and I don't know why their boss or cus­tomer didn't care less to do a ba­sic search and see what is ac­tu­al­ly re­turned. In all cas­es, I'm sur­prised to see how bad some of them are. It's like ask­ing a fish­mon­ger for salmon, and he will sug­gest you a book about a town in Lemhi Coun­ty, Ida­ho, give you a salmon-col­ored box of can­dies and talk about the weath­er for to­mor­row. Why the weath­er? I don't want to know the weath­er, I just want a piece of fish. Why are you talk­ing about Salmon, Ida­ho, and why are you giv­ing me can­dies? You're a fish­mon­ger, not a li­brar­i­an!

This il­lus­tra­tion is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Many cus­tom search en­gines be­have ex­act­ly the same way. They could give you a straight­for­ward an­swer, but in­stead, they flood the page with some com­plete­ly un­re­lat­ed stuff, show you the weath­er, and tell that they've found a few hun­dred re­sults, just not the good one.

How to lose po­ten­tial cus­tomers?

Let's com­pare Ken Rock­well's web­site with the web­site of Phox, a ma­jor re­seller of pho­to gear in France.

For this, we will search for “Nikkor 35mm”. If you're not fa­mil­iar with pho­tog­ra­phy, here's an ex­pla­na­tion. Nikon, a large com­pa­ny pro­duc­ing, among oth­ers, DSLRs, have a brand of lens­es, called Nikkor. As for the “35mm”, non-zoom lens­es have a fo­cal length spec­i­fied in milime­ters. So by search­ing for “Nikkor 35mm”, I want to find the lens­es made by Nikon with a fixed fo­cal length of 35mm. There are sev­er­al Nikkor 35mm lens­es, but imag­ine I'm specif­i­cal­ly search­ing for the one which is small and have “1.8” in its name.

Ken Rock­well's search gives “about 908 re­sults”. The first search page is filled with re­sults con­tain­ing the pho­tos of lens­es. This is ex­cel­lent, since I quick­ly see that the sec­ond and the third re­sults are not for me: those are the big, pro­fes­sion­al lens­es. The first looks promis­ing, but it's an f/2.8 lens; the fourth re­sult is an f/1.8 lens: that's what I was search­ing for.

The user ex­pe­ri­ence is out­stand­ing. I type what I need, I click on “Search” but­ton, and voila, a few sec­onds lat­er I'm on the page I was search­ing for. If this is un­pro­fes­sion­al, I don't know what is.

Let's search now for the same lens on Phox. Great, 0 re­sults. Se­ri­ous­ly, one of the largest re­sellers of pho­to gear in the coun­try doesn't have any Nikkor 35mm lens? I pick the sec­ond most pop­u­lar brand and one of the most pop­u­lar lens­es, and you tell me that you have noth­ing? Why spend­ing time de­vel­op­ing such use­less search fea­ture?

Aside the fact that I've lost my time us­ing the search (while ob­vi­ous­ly, it is com­plete­ly un­able to find even the most pop­u­lar prod­uct), it also sends a very bad mes­sage. A per­son who is quick­ly search­ing for the same lens on dif­fer­ent web­sites to find the best deal would prob­a­bly think that Phox doesn't have this lens, and go else­where.

More­over, search (when im­ple­ment­ed cor­rect­ly) is usu­al­ly the fastest way to get to a spe­cif­ic prod­uct. Go­ing through the site man­u­al­ly is too slow. For ex­am­ple, on Phox, this means po­si­tion­ing the cur­sor over “Lens­es”, wait­ing for the pan­el to ap­pear, mov­ing the mouse to “Nikon and com­pat­i­bles” (giv­en that the pan­el is re­tard­ed, since it will at­tempt to close if you move your cur­sor out­side, so those first steps can be a real chal­lenge for many peo­ple), avoid click­ing on an­oth­er item with “Nikon” in it, click and ar­rive to the page dis­play­ing lens­es which has noth­ing to do with Nikkor lens­es (see that fish­mon­ger who was try­ing to sell can­dies to some­one who want­ed to buy fish?), scroll to the bot­tom (be­cause the ac­tu­al Nikkor lens­es are out­side the vis­i­ble area), even­tu­al­ly come back to the top, check “Nikon” in “Com­pa­ny” list, wait for the page to re­fresh, scroll to the bot­tom, check “More than 29” for “Min­i­mum fo­cal” cri­te­ria, scroll again and find five re­sults, Nikkor 35mm miss­ing. Ok, the trick is to uncheck “More than 29” (I al­ways thought 35 was su­pe­ri­or to 29, but I sus­pect now that my math teach­ers were ly­ing to me, and things are not that sim­ple; maybe in some uni­vers­es, 35 is ac­tu­al­ly in­fe­ri­or to 29), to press Ctrl+F, to type “35” and to dis­cov­er that there is some­thing they call “NIKON - AF-S 35/1.8 G DX”. The name has noth­ing to do with the of­fi­cial name of the lens (the of­fi­cial name is “AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G”), and shows that the guys from Phox have a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of the gear-re­lat­ed stuff, but, well, we still achieved to find what we need­ed, and we are grate­ful for them for not find­ing even more clever tricks to hide their prod­ucts from po­ten­tial cus­tomers.


When you have to im­ple­ment search on your web­site (and chances are, you do), think twice be­fore mak­ing a choice.

You can do as Ken Rock­well: pro­vide what your cus­tomers ac­tu­al­ly need, and cre­ate an out­stand­ing user ex­pe­ri­ence by help­ing peo­ple to find what they need, and find it fast.

Or you can chose to be cor­po­rate, as Phox, with its turnover of 40 000 000 €: spend thou­sands of dol­lars to im­ple­ment use­less search which wastes your vis­i­tors' time, and spend a few more thou­sands of dol­lars to make it tricky to find even the most pop­u­lar lens while at the same time show­ing how un­knowl­edge­able you are about the stuff you sell.

The world is not so bad

Note that some com­pa­nies achieve to cre­ate great search en­gines. Dig­i­tal­Rev is one of them. When typ­ing “nikkor 35mm”, the re­sults are pop­u­lat­ed im­me­di­ate­ly. The lens I'm search­ing for is the first re­sult. A sim­ple click, and I'm there. Great job.