As a recent hire onto the Foster Made team, I was introduced to a bunch of new tools for my development toolbox. One of the biggest changes (besides moving from a PC to a Mac) was the graduation from native-Craft CMS search functionality to an external service called Algolia. I was initially quite resistant to (what I thought would be) introducing another, unnecessary layer to an already robust CMS. Turns out — though it might not be for every site — I’m a very big fan of Algolia because it adds a ton of functionality for the user and control for our clients.
First, let’s cover some of the basics, like explaining what Algolia even is, the fact that Craft CMS already has its own built-in search system, and why you should care about your website’s search experience.
Algolia is a search and discovery service that helps make searches more relevant to the user and makes finding content incredibly fast. It allows you to customize exactly what content on your site is searchable, how you want that content organized and categorized (for example: by type? By author? By month?), how you want that content to be ranked (if you’re in the tech world, it’s likely that your most recent articles are going to be the most relevant to your sites users; however, if you’re an author, maybe your best selling book or most cited article), and a whole bunch of other features.
If you’re wondering, “but doesn’t Craft have its own built-in search functionality?” The answer is Yep, AND I love it. It’s great, it works, and it’s come such a long way from the previous iterations. Example: you can tell the system on a field-by-field basis what should vs what shouldn’t be searchable, which is a great feature. Coupling the search feature with a powerful plugin like Sprig makes this a super developer-friendly function of the CMS. But it can be heavy, and it can be slow on sites that have hundreds of pages of content.
We really go into detail about this in another post about why you should invest in search, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll just say that people use on-site search boxes to find things quickly when they know what they need. Blog posts, instructional resources, and other more informal content are great ways to increase traffic to your site while engaging your users and establishing yourself as an authority — but when people can’t find good or relatable content, they won’t trust you or think you have anything for them. Ensuring that users are able to filter content into what is most relevant for them is an important part of creating a great user experience and building your authority; no one wants to go sorting through 50 blog posts or news articles to find that one piece of information they’re looking for — search boxes and filters are key.
Before we get into all the details about why Algolia is a great option, I want to briefly talk about the nature of integrations.
If you’re under the impression that integrations make things messy, they can. But that’s when you don’t have the excellent support of hundreds of Craft CMS-specific plugin devs who do great work, and have already built a tool to do something you need to do — and these developers consistently and responsibly update their plugins. If you’re coming from a WordPress sort of world — or anything that’s open sourced, really — plugins might have left a bad taste in your mouth because they weren’t well built or were abandoned. But plugins are simply extensions of CMS ability, and when responsibly built by people who understand the system, they can be so powerful.
Whether you choose to have your site’s search powered by Craft or Algolia, both options may include plugins. I already mentioned how the plugin Sprig can extend the capabilities of Craft’s native search system. When it comes to Algolia, there’s already a great little plugin called Scout with extensive documentation and a lot of intuitive bits and pieces. Scout allows you to hand-curate what content is searchable, and build a light-weight index of that content — that you don’t need a developer to further curate. This means there’s no custom-built integration that you need to pay for, just some initial configuration. And then you get to do your own customizations without a developer, from the Algolia dashboard.
It’s fast, it’s relevant, it’s customizable… I’ve already started to get into the benefits of Algolia, but now it’s time to dig in!
Did we mention Algoia is fast? It’s super fast. In fact, most search queries powered by Algolia take from 1 to 20 milliseconds, which is up to 200 times faster than the competition AND faster than you can blink your eye (which can range from 100-400 milliseconds)! It’s almost unnecessarily fast, but it can really come in handy when results start appearing as-you-type, which is another cool feature Algolia offers. As-you-type results can help redirect a user in the middle of their search process and encourage discovery of related content. This is all central to Algolia’s offerings. Basically every technical decision Algolia makes is built with performance in mind.
Once the index is built (more on that in our post about creating a data pipeline for search), website admins have control over content and the rankability of that content through the Algolia dashboard. You can account for people’s names (example: “Amy” could autocorrect to “any,” “Mena” might correct to “men” or “mean”), rank specific results higher than others (ex: if you have a customer that pays for a premium membership, you may want to rank them higher in search results than a company that’s advertising in a lesser tier), or you have a new piece of featured content that you’d like to push.
It’s understandable to think “But all the content on my site is specially crafted by my content specialists. Why would I need to further curate what is searchable?” This is a reasonable thought, so let’s explain. Let’s say you have a site dedicated to baking. Let’s further say your site has an author bio on every one of the recipe pages. What if, in that bio, someone mentions loving milkshakes, and goes on to list a bunch of different flavors that they love. This means when a user is searching for a recipe and looking for “strawberry” that recipes having nothing to do with strawberry will come up — because the author put strawberry in their bio, and their bio is on lots and lots of recipes. With search, we talk about detecting the intent of the user. Curating searchable content is part of that process, but that’s a topic for another day.
Typos are inevitable, whether someone doesn’t know how to spell a word or they make a mistake (which happens a lot on mobile devices). Typo tolerance is an important feature for modern search experiences, and Algolia provides it out-of-the-box along with some options for customization and how tolerant you want the experience to be. This is great, because nothing is worse than when someone is trying to find something, mis-types what they’re looking for, gets frustrated when either no results pop up or the wrong results pop up. Your content builds your authority and develops trust with your users, and if they’re not getting results because of a typo, that means they don’t reach your content to see how great it is.
Also out-of-the-box — no GTM (Google Tag Manager) configuring needed (although we do recommend GTM as well) — Algolia's robust click and conversion metrics will tell you what people are searching for, the results they got, and if they clicked on those results. This means your content specialists can get information on how users are interacting with your site, see what kind of content attracts those clicks, and — the kicker — then customize or block results (if, for example, people keep going to an outdated post) armed with this information. Knowing what users are searching for and clicking on (or not clicking on) can also uncover business problems and opportunities (if, for example, users are searching for and clicking on a product but you know sales for that product are comparatively low), and it can help aid content creation and curation.
Data in a CMS is like a Cobb salad — there’s a whole lot of ingredients, and you get the whole thing altogether. Algolia turns that many-layered info into a flatter, strictly organized, and more manageable version so that it’s smaller and faster to find what’s in it. Algolia grabs only what you need and nothing you don't, so even the data from thousands of entries can be searched lightning-fast. And anything that gives our clients more control over their content and gives their users a better experience is something we love — because we’re here to serve you and help you succeed.