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Eight hidden costs of Google Custom Search Engine (and other free site search tools) By Roy Fisher and Frederick Brummer

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Are free site search engines worth the price? Beware of hidden costs.

There’s a lot of ways to power your website’s search bar: each with different feature sets, support and usage limits. Each with prices that range from free to thousands of dollars per month. Why pay for search when free options like Google Custom Search Engine (CSE) exist? Many reasons. Many, many reasons.

There are two general kinds of free search solutions: open source and hosted.

  • Open source solutions require you to build your own search from existing components. This takes time and expertise to set up and maintain. If you’re looking for a free solution, you already skipped this option.
  • Hosted options like Google’s Custom Search engine take less time to set up and little work to maintain. Some hosted options are “free.” Others are not.

Here are some things to consider when evaluating free hosted search solutions. Maybe they’re an acceptable compromise. But there’s always a cost: for-profit companies that offer free services aren’t doing it out of generosity.

Third party ads

Most free hosted search solutions (including Google CSE) include paid ads in their search results. You could find yourself highlighting links to your competitors’ sites above your own content. This is a marketer’s nightmare.

And on mobile devices and other small-screen browsers, ads can dominate the entire screen. This isn’t just annoying: It effectively removes your content from the page entirely.

Privacy and data mining

With many free solutions — especially Google CSE — the provider collects huge amounts of data for their own use. Data about what users search for, about the content that was indexed, even about the users themselves. For public sector organizations (and many non-profits), this can have important privacy and security implications. And many government organizations have laws to restrict storage of data within their home country: if content indexes are stored across the border, using that service could violate those rules.

No control over when your content is crawled

You have no idea when Google CSE crawls your website — they’re even reluctant to release their update schedule. And you can’t even manually trigger a crawl. When you make a big change to content, like a new product, page, or blog post, it could be hidden from your search for a long time.

Branding

Google CSE search results use Google’s distinct branding and style, including (at some account levels) their logo. When you present other brands on your site (especially in such a frequently-used feature), you’re basically advertising for them — and the impact of your own brand is diminished. Google CSE does include some basic options for adjusting the layout and colours, but it still looks very much like Google.

Limited control of search results

With Google CSE, you have limited (though not zero) control over the relevancy of your site’s search results. But you won’t have the same level of control paid solutions give you. As of this writing, Google CSE doesn’t include protected words (which prevent stemming of important terms, names, locations, etc), alternate spellings (which let you add commonly-misspelled words), stop words (words that search ignores), or weighting.

Instead, Google’s CSE uses organic rankings. Which sounds good, except that means that your search results will tend towards what people look for on Google rather than what they actually need from your site.

No support

With free products, you won’t get much in the way of support. If you can’t figure out how to fix something, you’ll have to, well, google it.

The service exists at the whim of its creators

As they carefully note in their terms of service, Google CSE and other free service providers are not beholden to their users in any way. As such, they can decide to cancel their service at any time. Over the past couple years, Google has cancelled both Google Search Appliance and Google Site Search, along with other popular tools like Google Reader, Picasa, and Google Answers.

Your site is punished for growth

Google CSE is free only up to a certain number of sites and a certain number of queries per day. If your audience grows bigger than that, you must upgrade to a paid account. Really, Google CSE is still a paid service; they just use a different sales model.


Let’s be clear: Google is offering a service for no monetary cost, and is perfectly free to make up that cost in other ways. Google CSE is viable for many organizations. If your budget is limited and you just need something that works, Google CSE might be for you. And if your organization is part of a government or a non-profit, Google may remove the ads for you — but will still collect usage data based on content and search results, which could have privacy implications for public sector organizations.

If you want control over the branding and behaviour of the search results on your website, if you want to make sure you direct users to the right page for the right search terms — and you appreciate the value of good technical support — you should consider a paid alternative. Even if you’re not paying in money, you’re paying in other ways.

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