Benefits and Drawbacks of Different Search Solution Types
All businesses cut corners where they can to save money. Most of the time, things work out pretty well, but on occasion we see catastrophic failures that resulted from poor risk management.
Yahoo, eBay, Equifax, and Target are some of the most prominent examples of times when too much focus was placed on saving money. In all these cases, lax security policies, outside consulting, and technology left millions of people vulnerable and massive damage was done to the trust consumers had in these brands.
Since we all do what we can to save money, risk assessment is a critical skill. If you’re using a plugin, or a quick install for your search solution, you might be taking some unnecessary risks.
Plugins and extensions
First off, what do we mean when we say plugin? In this context, a plugin is a software solution that can be installed from the app stores of the major shopping cart platforms.
There are risks associated with using plugins anywhere on the web. Whether inside of your web browser, WordPress site, or online store, plugins can and do create major problems such as:
Broken design & functionality
The reason these things are possible is due to the core design philosophy of a plugin or extension. They are designed to be simple to install, but are not customized for each site. This can and does result in conflicts between the plugin and existing code on your site, or conflicts between multiple plugins.
In addition, since very limited customization is possible, layout and design likely will not entirely match your existing styles. Fonts, font styles and layout, search results pages, image sizes, etc., may all appear to be out of place. For smaller stores, this may not matter much, but most retailers will want a level of polish.
If you spend a few minutes browsing through the forums on Magento, Miva, or BigCommerce, you’ll see numerous concerns from store owners about the speed of their sites. A lot of the time, plugins and extensions are the cause.
Plugins can have access to sensitive data as well, and if they aren’t properly maintained, exploits can be found and used to gain access to that information.
Depending on the nature of the plugin, reliability is another major risk that needs to be assessed. While many plugins run natively on your store, most search plugins (the decent ones) need access to external servers to do their job. For only a few dollars a month, what kind of data infrastructure is reasonable to expect? Around the holidays, it’s very common for these services to go down completely, or respond extremely slowly due to the excessive load.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the two largest online shopping days of the year, and every year, thousands of retailers go down. Some stores can’t be accessed at all, but many others lose functionality like search and category navigation from their third-party services.
Quick install search solutions
Outside of plugins and extensions, most other search solutions can be installed quickly. While it’s not quite as simple as clicking a button in an app store, these solutions will be able to integrate onto your store with just a few lines of code.
These types of solutions are usually much more flexible than a plugin. But they still have limitations that you should know about.
- Ongoing or “agile” implementation (drawbacks derived from this)
- Uptime and reliability
Customizing your store’s:
- Autocomplete layout & UI
- Search results layout & UI
- Category pages layout & UI
- Data optimization
- Hover effects
- Pricing logic
“Agile” or ongoing implementation style
The customization process generally happens over the course of several weeks, but can take longer depending on the development resources at your disposal. You are in charge of this development, and will have to do it in-house, or hire an external developer.
The good thing about this approach is that you get your new search and navigation functionality running much more quickly. However, in the meantime, your shoppers may have to contend with UI and functionality bugs, and design and layout inconsistencies in your search and navigation.
What happens if something breaks during any stage of your implementation? Who will fix it? How long will it take? What will that cost you if parts of your site are down?
In addition to having to customize how your search and navigation will look and work on your own, you’re also missing out on consultation and direction from the experts.
Uptime and reliability issues
This style of SaaS solution is usually designed to be implemented at scale, and thus needs to get by with as few resources as possible. A high-touch approach to servicing their customers would generally be far too expensive to be feasible.
For that reason, there may not be contingency plans in place, so reliability and uptime sometimes suffer. This is especially true on high-volume traffic days, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the weeks following these days until the end of the year. Slow search and navigation, and outright crashes are unfortunately common. While reliability largely depends on the provider, it’s a good idea to do research on their infrastructure if this is a concern for your brand.
Custom Tailored Integration
A custom tailored integration takes the approach of integrating the solution only once everything is ready. This approach also avoids conflicts and major bugs since there is a thorough review of the site before the solution is designed and implemented. This consultative approach has a number of other benefits for businesses that want to mitigate risk.
- Plugin consolidation
Although implementation takes longer with this approach, it will produce better results and require less management going forward. While businesses in a rush may see this as a weakness, it reduces or eliminates many of the risks associated with 3rd party services of this kind.
Implementation will generally take from 4-6 weeks with this type of integration. Here’s what it entails:
– Data audit
This is a review of your data to understand what it is, how it’s organized, where it’s stored, and how the solution will retrieve it.
During the audit process, consultation is also provided. There will usually be ways that data can be improved, which is crucial to ensuring that the solution works as intended.
– Functional requirements audit
During this time, the solution provider will work with you to understand exactly how you want their product implemented.
Which solutions are being provider (search, navigation, product recommendations), how should they work (product search and content search?), and where should they be located (which pages should product recommendations widget live on?). Aesthetic design requirements are also discussed here, and code is passed to the provider.
Consultation is provided at this stage as well, making the retailer aware of any best practices regarding design that are not currently being followed.
– Initial design
At this point, the provider will design the various elements that they are providing (autocomplete design and layout, search results page, filter UI, etc.)
Now, the provider works with the retailer to ensure that design and implementation are up to their standards.
Now that everything is optimized and truly ready, the solution goes live.
This type of integration can be customized fully. Anything from the look and feel to the way the solution works can be modified at any time. As mentioned above, this implementation style means that anything you require can be customized before the solution goes live on your site.
Every site is unique and has different needs in terms of behaviors, look and feel. There is a plethora of custom capabilities that are needed.
Here’s just a few examples:
- Hover effects
- Pricing logic
- Dynamic images
- Shipping costs
- URL structure
- Add to cart URLs
- Faceting / filter summary
Depending on the solution some of these customizations may even be available in a user friendly interface so that code is not necessary. When more in-depth code changes are required, the provider can be brought on to implement the changes.
Here’s a real-world example that shows why this implementation style is important.
We have a proprietary website platform and the team at SearchSpring really worked hard with us to streamline the integration and find solutions to problems that perhaps only we would encounter due to the uniqueness of our website platform. – Curtis B.
In general, white glove solutions like ours will offer much better support than cheaper solutions. Since we’re handling the integration and up-front customization work, if something breaks, it’s our job to fix it.
This is what AJ from AceMart had to say after switching from a quick install solution to our custom tailored integration:
“SearchSpring’s support/service blows our previous provider’s out of the water.” – AJ, Digital Marketing Strategist at AceMart
Ultimately, this depends on the provider, but this is generally representative of what you can expect in this industry.
These high-touch solutions generally have fewer clients at a higher monthly cost, giving them the ability to devote more resources to individual clients. Speed and uptime are a high priority. While we can’t speak for the other providers in this category, at SearchSpring, we average greater than 99.99% uptime, and deliver above average speed. Importantly, these aren’t just averages. You shouldn’t expect major fluctuations in speed, but will have consistently fast response times, even amidst high-volume traffic.
Christopher A. had this to say regarding reliability compared to other types of providers:
I’ve been a customer for over 5 years and I’ve honestly never had an issue with the service. It’s never gone down that I’ve seen – ever. If you use SAS apps even a little, you know this is unheard of. – Christopher A.
Again, whether all of this is true or not depends on the provider in question, but this is what you should expect in general.
Much of the tweaking and tuning typically handled by numerous plugins can be serviced by a robust custom integrated solution. These one-off plugins don’t communicate with each other, often requiring merchants to duplicated work. Removing these plugins that help with facets, autocomplete, and synonym management, and rolling this into a single, integrated solution can make your store faster, more secure, and easier to manage.
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