These days, internal search functions for websites are more and more often implemented as separate SaaS (Software as a Service) services. This can simply mean that a cloud-based search engine crawls the site regularly and forms a search index based on the contents and descriptive information of the site. In this case, only a search field and the user interface needed to present the search results need to be added to the actual site.
As part of our last year´s Web technology data report covering 2,500 noticeable Finnish websites, we also looked into which SaaS-based search solutions have been used on the sites. This article discusses the share of SaaS search solutions in Finland and a little bit in other parts of the world, and what the solutions are suitable or not suitable for.
North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.
Let's start with pros and cons. What are the biggest benefits of SaaS-based solutions?
Implementation (almost) out of the box. The search solutions of content management systems are often not that good from the end user's point of view. For example, the world's most common publishing system, WordPress, does not include a decent search solution, instead it is almost always implemented with an add-on. Headless CMS systems (e.g. Contentful) typically include even less. A SaaS search service, on the other hand, can be connected very easily to any site, regardless of which system or systems are used for content management.
Good useability and look. Ready-made solutions typically have polished the usability and user interfaces to the last detail. The search fields suggest the most used search words and the search results are presented clearly and organized according to relevance. The search results may also show a preview image of the results page to help the user select.
Good tools for adjusting search weightage etc. Setting up and testing the search function can, at times, be time consuming. At least those ready-made solutions that have been in the market for some time ease the workload by offering good interfaces for fine-tuning the search function. How much you can adjust, of course, depends from product to product, but it's common that weightages, search word synonym dictionaries, and different search rules can be created with easy-to-use interfaces without using a developer that knows all the technical details of the search engine.
Support for multi-site entities. When it comes SaaS engine tools, it doens't matter whether the content to the index is added from one or several sites. Especially in the case the entire site is implemented with several different technologies, but the search should still cover all of them, a SaaS-based search is often the most efficient solution.
What are the challenges and limitations of the SaaS model then?
Total costs are difficult to predict. The pricing models of SaaS search solutions vary, but it's common that the pricing is based on the number of content pages to be indexed and/or the number of searches. The starting prices are usually quite low – from one to a few dollar per 1,000 searches. But the final price isn't always easy to predict, especially when it comes to larger sites that have a lot of users. The pricing can also change during the lifetime of the site, which adds to the challenge.
Limited possibilities for customization. All SaaS search solutions include some kind of admin interface, which allows to determine which sites to index, which classification data is collected, how the search results are shown, and/or how the search results are prioritized. But sometimes there is little room for customization. If, for example, the way the ready-made product shows search results is not suitable, there might be little that can be done about it. When it comes to customization, different platforms vary a lot so choose carefully.
Top 3 solutions in Finland
Algolia is a search service provider founded in 2012 in France and, since, has moved its headquarters to San Francisco, Silicon Valley. They have over 800 employees, and operations and services are being done from 70 data centers around the world. Algolia has collected tens of millions worth of external funding during the years, and in 2021 its worth was stated at 2.25 billion dollars. Algolia states that 1.5 billion searches per year are done with their search service – six times more than Microsoft Bing, for example.
According to BuiltWith, Algolia is used on over 550,000 sites internationally and on around 2,000 sites in Finland. Our data report shows Algolia as the search engine on 2.1 % of sites, mainly web stores such as pentik.com (Shopify) and fiksuruoka.fi (MyCashFlow). Algolia was designed “performance first” from day one, therefore it is at its best as a search engine for large sites with a lot of users.
Klevu is a Finnish company founded in 2013 with offices in Finland, Sweden, UK, USA, Australia, and India. Its revenue has been increasing steadily with it being 6.8 millions in 2021. They operate with a loss (-1.7 M€ in 2021), which is, however, typical for companies that invest so much for product development and going international. Also Klevu has received millions worth of external funding to support their growth.
According to BuiltWith, Klevu has been implemented internationally on around 3,500 sites and over 100 sites in Finland. In our report, its share was 1.2 %, so a lot smaller share compared to Algolia. According to our report, also Klevu was mainly a solution for webstore searches, it´s used for example on marimekko.com (Magento) and vallila.fi (Shopify) sites. Klevu is aimed especially for website usage, for example Shopify and Magento has ready-made Klevu-plugins. Implementing Klevu is easy and might be done even in-house by an ecommerce expert.
AddSearch is another Finnish SaaS company with a search product. The company was founded in 2013, and now operates internationally with external funding for growth gathered from Tekes and private investment companies. In 2021 their revenue was 1.4 million euros. Their profit, from 2021, has been slightly in the minus (-56,000 €).
BuiltWith shows that there are over 2,000 sites internationally with AddSearch and 142 sites in Finland. Our report showed a share of 1.1 %, not far behind Klevu. AddSearch is used on sites built with different tools, which speaks for its easy implementation on different platforms. AddSearch is being used for example on vaasansahko.fi (WordPress), pauliggroup.com (Drupal), and grano.fi (HubSpot) sites.
According to BuiltWith, Optimizely is used as a search solution on over 5,700 sites internationally and on 245 sites in Finland. It had a 1.9 % on our report. Optimizely´s search function is used on for example huhtamaki.com (Optimizely) and fazer.com (Shopify) sites.
It had to be said, that although Optimizely Search & Navigation is in theory possible to implement on any site, this is not the case in practice. Using it as a search engine for a site build with any other tool than Optimizely is very rare, and not the best solution.
Valu Search, on the other hand, is worth looking into. It didn't come up in our report because automatic scanners such as BuiltWith don’t recognize it, but according to Valu, it´s used on over 100 sites. Many of these sites are implemented by Valu, but there are many others using it too. For example uef.fi (Drupal) search uses Valu Search.
SaaS search solutions still don't have a clear winner
It’s worth noticing that the SaaS search solution market is scattered and each solution has a small percentage of the market share, even top 3 solutions. Most of the search solutions are still based on traditional search implementations, but there are a variety of different open source code solutions too. In Finland, North Patrol tendering has shown mostly different Lucene-based heavier search solutions, such as ElasticSearch and Solr. On top of these, WordPress agencies often recommend search solutions made especially for WordPress, such as RediSearch and Relevanssi.
However, SaaS solutions have special features to consider. For example AddSearch and Algolia have been popular solutions over the past years especially in cases where companies run their own digital services fairly independently in-house. With these, you often get better search interfaces than with custom-coded solutions, or at least with a smaller initial investment.
Consider your search solution carefully
The choice of search solution is one key technology choice that should usually be made already in the planning phase, based on the requirements of the service. It is of course good to listen to the recommendations of suppliers, but to be honest, they may not always be objective in recommending the best solution for their customer. The suppliers often have good practical experience of a solution they have used before (and that gives them sales). But if you need to invest in a good search engine, you should explore other options as well. The most suitable solution may be one of the SaaS services available. They may offer a cost-effective way to boost your site´s functions to the next level.
Kimmo Parkkinen is an expert in requirement specifications and software procurement.
Kimmo consults the customers on defining the functional requirements and technical design of web based solutions as well as selecting the best suppliers for the implementation phase. His areas of expertise include designing, modelling and documenting complex web based services.
Kimmo has over 20 years of experience with web and intranet projects, including serving as a software architect, technical project manager and a production manager in software vendor companies and also as an independent consultant.
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