October 27th, 2020

How to Super Charge Your Ecommerce Search on WordPress

Author: Joe Ouillette
Joe Ouillette
Development Lead

Want to build a more powerful, customizable search function for your ecommerce store? Welcome to Elasticsearch.

Any ecommerce store owner with a large enough product catalog understands how vital it is to have high-quality search functions on their store. Without search, many products would be buried in the catalog, customers would struggle to find what they’re looking for, and sales would drop.

Put simply, a good search experience is what allows online shopping to compete with traditional retail.

You may not be able to browse product shelves or sort through racks of clothing, but with good search tools you can find exactly what you’re looking for, and more easily compare it to other products. The problem for most ecommerce businesses is that all search tools are not created equal, and getting one that functions as well as you’re used to from the major tech companies like Google or Amazon isn’t easy.

Let’s take a closer look at the challenges facing ecommerce businesses who want a better search tool—and how they can improve what they have.

The bad news: You can’t be Google. The good news? You can get pretty close.

Let us start by setting some reasonable expectations. Giant, multibillion dollar corporations like Google and Amazon invest heavily in creating and improving their search functions. These algorithms are complex and constantly changing, and the research and development behind them requires extensive resources. Unless you are also a multibillion dollar tech powerhouse, you won’t be able to match what they can do.

But you can probably be doing a lot better than you are now—especially if you having taken any time to customize or optimize your search tools.

How WordPress search works—and why it won’t cut the cake.

Most WordPress websites rely on native search functions. You may be using this yourself, in which case you may wonder why you need a new search tool. The answer comes down to how WordPress performs their search function.

As in any search engine, the user types in their keyword, and then WordPress search will check the content, the title tags, and the product excerpt for any matches.

This is all well and good, so far as it goes. The problem is that WordPress search doesn’t offer any further tools that might help you modify results and fine-tune the selection process. It also only searches those three fields, as opposed to other relevant data, such as categories, tags, or custom product fields.

Fortunately, although WordPress’s native search tools may be limited, you don’t have to be limited by them. WordPress integrates with a range of plugins—including search plugins. And one of these plugins, ElasticPress, which uses the search program Elasticsearch, offers a broader range of fields to help you improve search results.

Elastic Search

This means you a search keyword doesn’t have to exactly match the title, content, or excerpt to appear in results. So long as that term appears in other fields—not all of which are visible to the user—it can still show up on your site.

What this means is that if you have a product named “lime green jacket,” and someone searches for “lime green jacket,” WordPress will display the jacket in its results. But it won’t display the jacket if a user searches for “bright green jacket,” or “neon green jacket,” or “grass green jacket.”

However, ElasticPress’s additional search fields mean you can name your product “lime green jacket,” and then include variations on that key phrase in the “tags” field. Or you can create a custom field for “color,” and use that as an additional way to organize search results.

How can you fine tune your search results with ElasticPress?

While having more search fields is useful, it’s just the beginning. Perhaps the true genius of the Elasticsearch program is that it allows you to weight key terms according to relevancy.

Elastic Search

This is key, because depending on the business, not all key terms are useful to the searcher. For instance, if you sell tech accessories, many of your products may have the same (or similar) names. Weighted search means that if a user searches for “13” laptop case,” instead of treating “laptop case” as the most important phrase and weighting all results equally, the search assigns greater relevancy to the size.

This isn’t all. When Elasticsearch is linked with your user interface, it can improve the functioning of your front end search tools. Want to let your users filter their search by clicking on a color, rather than using that color as a keyword? You can do that—and Elasticsearch’s custom fields mean you can be more precise about what products use which color keywords. Want to exclude searches that fall outside of a specified price range? You can do that, too. A more powerful search tool makes all your existing UI search functions more effective.

Refining and customizing your search engine takes time, but the payoff is worth it.

If all the above sounds like a lot of work—you’re not wrong. Almost everything about ecommerce customization takes time, from optimizing products for SEO, to writing unique product descriptions, to labeling and weighting the search tools to show the most relevant products.

But here’s the thing: your customers will respond.

They may not notice the change. After all, a good search engine is unobtrusive—you’re only aware of it when it’s working poorly. But you will see a change in user behavior.

They’ll spend more time on your site using your search tool to browse products. They’ll make more searches—and more complicated searches—because they’ll know, subconsciously, that the tool works. And they’ll add more products to their shopping cart, because they were able to find what they came for.

That’s the power of an effective search tool. And when your search is powered by Elasticsearch, that’s the kind of tool you can have.

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