Swiftype vs Algolia vs Google Custom Search

Implementing a site search is a lot more difficult than it seems. I’ve tried a few options.

I got burned by one and confused by another.

The basic WordPress search doesn’t do autocomplete nor any kind of ranking, and can’t match the speed of other search providers.

If you’re a small or medium web publisher, with a staff of one (being yourself) – implementing things are tough. It’s not like you tap your development team on the shoulder. You have no one to call, and you don’t have the budget for much.

You can drop in the basic Google Custom Search – but your search results page will be plastered with ads (almost the entire page above the fold!).

Swiftype Algolia Google CSE
Cost / month* $399 up $49 up $8.33 up
Analytics Good Amazing Poor
Setup Moderate Difficult Easy
Customization Somewhat Anything Limited

*Based on tiers – google might look cheap but that only allows your site just 54 searches per day.

1. Swiftype

I began using Swiftype a number of years ago. I wanted an autocomplete search on my site.

I signed up for a paid plan ($19 per month), and began implementing. My site is WordPress but has some pages that are “outside” WordPress. Swiftype helped this by crawling the site and finding everything.

I had a tough time getting the autocomplete to work. I used some of their sample jQuery code – at the time their “drop in” solution just didn’t do what I want.
Custom Autocomplete

Eventually I got it working and it looked alright.

Swiftype Dashboard

They have great analytics, and you can tinker with weightings and rankings.

But I’m a solo web site maker. I don’t have time for this. I’m lucky to have 20 minutes in a month to quickly check search.

Advertisement

Then things went downhill fast.

Out of the blue I got an email from Swiftype who wanted to talk. After 6 weeks of back and forth emails, 3 phone calls, the upshot was this: Swiftype had changed their price plans.

Their entry level price was now $399 per month.

I kid you not. $19 to $299. A 1,573% increase. And that was billed annually ($3,588 per year). They argued that my usage had outgrown the plan. Fair comment, so I worked hard to reduce the number of autocomplete calls.

I naively thought that my price plan was ‘grandfathered’. Not so. Even negotiating a discount wasn’t enough. This was way out of reach, so after all the time I spent getting the code to work, it’s time to farewell Swiftype. If you’re making your own sites – forget Swiftype – they’re only interested in the big fish.

UPDATE: Just before publishing this, they reached out and offered a further discount. Good on them.

2. Algolia

With a spare hour or two I then attempted to give Algolia a go.

They excel at producing fast and good looking autocomplete results, and their prices start at $49 per month (although there is a free tier for a small amount of searches).

However after two hours I gave up in frustration. Their WordPress plugin just didn’t work on my site. Part of it was to do with the funky asynchronous JavaScript setup I have. But even when I changed all that I still couldn’t get it to work.

No Crawling
Algolia works by uploading and “index” – this is a set of data. They don’t crawl your site. The wordpress plugin will do that for you (posts or pages). That kept crashing with errors – which I eventually traced to a WordPress page I had that was too big for their index. I had to remove the page to get the index upload to work.

To get my non-wordpress pages into their index would also required a lot of messing around to extract the page data into JSON format.

Things were rapidly getting beyond my skill set, and time available.

Algolia Dashboard

Like Swiftype, the Algolia analytics are impressive. But to be honest, this is overkill for a content-based site. If you had a big ecommerce operation, this kind of data is very useful.

So, Algolia was out for me…

3. Google Custom Search

Google CSE (custom search engine) is a drop-in solution that replicates Google-style search results for your site only.

It’s quickly configured and you can paste the code into your site and have a basic site search up and running in about 10-20 minutes.

Too Many Ads
By default you will get ads (and lots of them) – but you can hook this into your adsense account and get a share. However a page full of ads is pretty confusing for the user (or maybe not? everyone is used to Google search results anyway).

This is my test page for a coffee query. Almost everything above the fold is an ad. To stop this you have to start paying. The paid tier is called Google Site Search and is charged per search queries a year.

Google CSE

If you have 500 queries per day – you’ll be paying $750 per year… so not that cheap.

I set it up fairly quickly on a local test site. But I immediately ran into problems (my own CSS was messing up their search box). I also couldn’t get the autocomplete to work. Again – probably a conflict with some of the other Javascript on the site.

What’s good about the Google CSE is it brings all the algorithm smarts of Google onto your own site. You don’t have to mess around with manually tweaking rankings etc – as that’s what they do so well.

The analytics are a let down. You can hook it into your Google Analytics account – but even then – the results are very inferior to Swiftype and Algolia.

What’s The Best?

It clearly depends on your budget and the amount of expertise you have. The basic Google CSE will suit many – as long as you are prepared to have lots of ads on the the results.

If you want to make a real go of site search you need to use Swiftype or Algolia. Their analytics and insights are great for seeing when people can’t find what they want on your site.

Hi, I'm James, and for the last decade I've made a living by making my own blogs and websites.
Updated: November 11, 2016

3 Comments

  1. Nice unbiased write-up. I just thought I would point out to other readers that Google Site Search (no ads version/option of Google) will no longer be sold after April 1, 2017, and will no longer be available after April 1, 2018.

    • Thanks for the heads up. So the free (ad version) is still supported. I’ve used this, but they really do LOAD the search results with ads – making it almost unusable.

  2. Just a postscript. I was gobsmacked when Algolia emailed me a day after publishing the post. It was an extensive personally written email offering to help with all the problems I had getting the search to work.

    Don’t see service like that too often these days. Excellent.

Add a Comment