Searching Towards Bethlehem

Can This Y Combinator Startup Solve the Site Search Problem?

In which Swiftype makes the day of Internet publishers everywhere.
 Can This Y Combinator Startup Solve the Site Search Problem?

Swiftype's sweet offices. (swiftype.com)

Talk to anyone who primarily works on the Internet, and you’ll eventually bump into the same grievance, no matter the industry: site search–the mechanism that allows users to search your website for key words–is broken. Actually, broken might be too soft a word: fucked is really more apt. On the whole, site search is fucked.

Last week we were at a bar with a fellow Observer staff writer, when the conversation turned to site search. “I abandoned my Tumblr because their site search doesn’t work,” he declared. We all nodded our heads in agreement.

But it’s not just Tumblr. Have you ever tried to search this very website?

The most effective searchers abandon a site’s search box in lieu of a defined Google query, but even Google’s site search products aren’t particularly reliable. It’s a frustrating reality for anyone who publishes online, and it also relegates any content published before a certain time period to the bowels of the Internet. No one is going to unearth a story you wrote six months ago, no matter how relevant to your search query it is.

So when we came upon this post on TechCrunch about Y Combinator-backed startup Swiftype, a project from two ex-Scribd employees, we gleefully Skyped it to the other Betabeat staffers. “If this really works as well as it says it does, we NEED it,” we typed.

And it’s true: On the surface, Swiftype–which purports to add “great search to your website in minutes”–looks very much like the answer to our Internet-borne prayers. Its founders, Matt Riley and Quin Hoxie, told TechCrunch that Swiftype indexes a more comprehensive crawl than even Google site search does, making “a PageRank that’s specific to individual websites.”

But this is where it gets even better: unlike Google, Swiftype allows you to control which pages display at the top of the results when a user searches a specific word. That means that if you’re a blog like Betabeat, when someone searches “Apple,” for example, the site administrator can choose which articles are the most relevant, and rank them thusly. It’s really an editor’s dream: complete control of your search results. We’re kind of freaking out just thinking about it.

Swiftype just launched its public beta today, so it remains to be seen if it will actually live up to its exciting claims. We tried it out and found it a little bit buggy–when we created a search engine, it didn’t index our pages like it does in the video, and when we tried to delete it, it refused to respond to our command.

Obviously the Swiftype team still has a few bugs to work out, but you should probably test it out for free before it exits beta and implements a pricing model.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com