Three practical ways Google Site Search offers a superior experience

Your content management system’s native search will do a good job for standalone websites. But what if you’ve got a more complex situation? Google Site Search might be the right solution.

Addendum, 28 July 2017

Sadly, on 21 February 2017, Google announced that it was discontinuing its excellent Google Site Search (GSS) service with phasing out starting on 1 April 2017 and shutdown on 1 April 2018. Google’s free Custom Search Engine will continue, but this does not have the API provided by GSS which means that you do not have the same flexibility to style search results.

The closest alternative that we’ve found in terms of functionality, flexibility and pricing is Microsoft’s Bing Search API. Bing Search API requires more developer effort to set up than GSS, but is otherwise similar. One major difference is that the Bing API does not support URL exclusions. It only supports inclusions.

Here are three scenarios you might encounter.

  • You need search results to cover multiple subdomains
  • The site contains externally sourced content that you need to include in search results
  • You need to provide users with search result refinements

Let’s take a look at each of these and how you might solve the problem.

Multiple subdomains

Suppose you have a shop hosted on a service like Shopify at shop.example.com. Your users will want to see results from shop.example.com in main site search results.

Most native CMS search technologies do not include facilities for including non-CMS pages. You’ll have to find another solution.

Open source technology such as Apache Solr is popular. But there’s a steep learning curve and a lot of complexity to deal with. What’s more, Solr alone won’t do the job. You will also have to configure a crawler such as Apache Nutch to index your shop.

Tell Google Site Search the domains and subdomains you want to include in search results. That’s it. Job done.

Externally sourced content

What if your site is pulling in content from a database or document store? That content isn’t in your CMS database so native CMS search won’t include it.

In this scenario a solution such as Solr and Nutch would do the job, but you’ll need some work to configure it.

With Google Site Search you won’t need to do anything. As long as the content is showing up on pages in your site search results will include it.

Search result refinements

To improve user experience you want to include tabs for ‘All’ and ‘Shop’ on your search results pages.

Tabbed search results
The British Lung Foundation website search results can be filtered by ‘Statistics’ (statistics.blf.org.uk) and ‘Leaflets and gifts’ (shop.blf.org.uk).

If your shop isn’t in your CMS, your native CMS search isn’t going to help. Solr has good support for setting up filters, facets and refinements. The challenge you’ll have us is figuring out how to do it with Solr.

With Google Site Search setting up a search refinement is a one-step process.

What’s the catch?

So, is Google Site Search perfect? Not if you want a search solution that is free of ongoing costs. At $100/£100 per year for up to 20,000 queries it has an affordable entry price. Also, you don’t have the fine tuning possibilities that you get with Solr.

And what about Google Custom Search?

Google Site Search is actually a variant of Google Custom Search. Google offers up to 20,000 queries a year for free with its basic Custom Search. Free just comes at the cost of having to accept adverts. That’s unless you happen to be a non-profit organisation.

Also, basic Custom Search doesn’t give you full control over styling search results. To get full control you’ll need to use the XML API. And to get access to the XML API you’ll need to use Site Search.

Conclusions

Google Site Search can be a great solution for sites that are just a bit more complex than the norm. You’ll have to spend some money on a subscription though. Here’s a summary of how Google Site Search might be a winner for you and your users.

Native CMS search Apache Solr Google Site Search
Multiple subdomains No Yes, but… Yes, easy
Externally sourced content No Yes, but… Yes, easy
Search result refinements No Yes, but… Yes, easy
Free? Yes Yes No

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