Free hosted search solutions

If you want a free search engine for your website and don’t want too much technical hassle, then a remotely hosted search solution may be just the thing for you. Hosted search has a much easier set-up process than a search engine which requires installation on your server. All you generally need to do is a bit of simple configuration followed by cutting-and-pasting some supplied code into your pages.

However, there are definitely some potential downsides to consider with the free offerings from hosted search providers:

  • Free hosted search engines generally come with adverts on results pages. If you want to remove them, you will need to upgrade to the paid-for version of the service.
  • Free services may not give you any control over how often or how thoroughly your site is indexed
  • Search results pages may have little or no scope for customisation
  • Some solutions may have page limits on how many pages the free search will index
  • The supplied cut-and-paste code may include formatting you want to amend or code which won’t validate without a bit of work

If you want to explore free hosted search further, below are eight services currently offering a free solution:

Google Custom Search Engine
http://www.google.com/coop/cse/
As you’d expect from Google, CSE is a polished product with an extremely easy set-up procedure. It can also give you extra benefits if you combine its use with Google AdSense and Google Analytics. A major downside to CSE though is that it does not provide you with any control over the indexing of your site. Even with the paid-for version there is no guarantee that all your pages will ever get indexed and no way to schedule indexing. You essentially just get the results which Google serves up for your site on google.com. However, if you have a large site which is already well indexed by Google, the results produced can be better than those from other free search engines, since you benefit from Google’s ability to pull the most relevant results to the front of results sets. Also, a great benefit for not-for-profit organisations is that they don’t need to have ads on their results pages, even with the free version.

JRank

http://www.jrank.org/

Enables direct control over crawling schedule, customisation of results and the ability to divide your website search into “contexts”, groups which you can specify.

Freefind
http://www.freefind.com/
Offers almost all the features in its paid-for version in its free edition, including no fixed page limit (although the size of site supported is limited to 64MB of HTML).

SiteLevel Basic

http://sitelevel.whatuseek.com

Includes reporting features, the ability to configure how relevancy is determined and customisable results screens. You get weekly automated re-indexing with the free siteLevel Basic service. The (paid-for) Pro version has daily automated re-indexing. You can also specify categories within your site for more targeted searching.

Atomz
http://www.atomz.com
Includes customizable search results pages, control over indexing and search statistics. Indexes up to 10,000 pages and supports multiple languages.

Rollyo

http://rollyo.com

As with Google CSE, you can set this up to search across several sites. Unlike with CSE, or most other free solutions listed here, the results have to appear on Rollyo’s site rather than your own and you can’t customise the way they look. Includes neat social networking features which differentiate it from other solutions.

picosearch

http://www.picosearch.com

The free version offers some customisation of search results as against complete templating in the paid-for versions. The free version also has some control over indexing and indexes up to 250 pages – but only HTML and text, not PDF or Word.

FusionBot

http://www.fusionbot.com

FusionBot offers 5 different packages at different price points. The free package includes sitemap generation, search context control, the ability to create search regions/partitions and basic customisation of results pages. The free version does not index PDF or Word files or highlight key words.

Review: Building Findable Websites

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond by Aarron Walter is a book that I’ve got a lot out of. Its full of useful material which should be of real practical help to people involved in any facet of a web project. It has a refreshingly holistic approach which looks at website findability in the widest possible manner, avoiding the narrowly doctrinaire perspective of some writings on web standards, SEO or accessibility and including lots of examples which are immediately useful in the real world.

His wide-ranging remit means that the book will probably be most appreciated by webmasters or web project managers whose roles involve them needing to straddle a range of disciplines. Web developers, designers or SEO gurus may perceive some of it as unfocused as it switches rapidly between generalist explanations and low-level technical examples, with topics covered ranging over coding, server administration, marketing tips and WordPress implementations. However, this variety appealed to me and should ensure that most readers are going to learn at least something new about areas they may not know so much about.

After introducing the author’s concept of findability as a discipline, the book starts by discussing markup strategies. The importance of web standards and accessibility are predictably emphasised, but there’s also a spirited defence of the benefits of web standards for SEO which is interesting. The book then moves into a discussion of server-side strategies for findability with advice on domain names, search engine friendly URLs, redirects, 404 pages, optimizing performance and controlling search engine indexing.

The middle section of the book discusses content creation for findability and then includes a whole chapter on findability for blogs. This was probably my favourite single section and includes lots of specific stuff about using WordPress. There’s then a chapter on adding search to your site. This discusses a range of options, including both free and paid-for solutions. For me personally, the most useful tip in the book was on page 156 in this section. Here you can find out how to implement Google Custom Search Engine so that users who don’t have JavaScript won’t get an empty search results page, without having to direct all users to search results hosted on Google’s site. The apparent reliance on JavaScript had been putting me off using Google CSE where I wanted to integrate it into my own sites, so this was really useful to me.

The book continues with a look at solving findability problems with JavaScript, Flash and audio / video content. It then moves onto an overview of mailing lists before concluding with a chapter on “Putting Findability Into Practice”, emphasising the need to adapt the techniques introduced in the book to the specific needs of your own projects.

In general, the book’s got a nice readable style. The expected experience level of readers is pitched at “Intermediate to Advanced” according to the back cover and people just starting out may find some of the more technical stuff a bit daunting. However, there’s a decent effort made to explain even the more complicated concepts and beginners could still learn a lot. Good references are included to further reading and also to some relevant podcasts – which is something I really appreciate when authors include.

The companion site is a great addition to the published book. It includes a comprehensive list of links to useful resources and a further five chapters of the book available free. I thought the chapter on web traffic analysis was a particularly good introduction to the topic, but all of the free chapters are worth reading. There is also a Findability Strategy Checklist which acts as a quick reference for the topics covered in the book. This is a nice practical tool which could be useful for any web project.

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond is by Aarron Walter and is published by New Riders.