The ideal search experience involves a user entering a search term, waiting an infinitesimal amount of time, and having the perfectly matching asset delivered to them at the top of a list of other extremely relevant hits. Like this:
The developers of each asset control much about how the asset’s information is stored in the search engine (this process is called indexing), and how its information is searched and returned in the search results. Developers who dislike how a particular asset behaves in search can use an Indexer Post Processor to modify the asset’s indexing behavior, and how search queries are constructed to look up the assets in Liferay Portal.
There are also ways to influence the way search results are displayed from the user interface. This article covers the following topics:
- Configuring the display of search results
- Understanding search results relevance
- Filtering search results with facets
- The effect of permissions on search results
- Search results in the staging environment
- Search results summaries
- Search term highlighting
Search results, called hits in the backend search infrastructure, are the end of the road, the destination, to some users. To others, they’re just the beginning of the journey. Either way, you can configure how they’re displayed.
Configuring Results Display
The search application has a nice format for displaying search results. It also allows users to click on a specific result so they can look at it in more detail. Configure the application’s display options by clicking its options menu () and selecting Configuration. The tab displayed is Display Settings.
The Scope setting is really important. By default, searching is done on This Site, which means only the assets associated with the site where the search is executed. To expand the scope of the search to the entire Liferay Portal instance, select Everything. To let the user choose which scope they want to search, select Let the User Choose.
The list of facet settings on this page is also quite important. Learn more about facets and their configuration options in a separate article.
For more display options, click the Other Settings tab. There are several options:
- Display Results in Document Form
- Display results as search documents. Never use this in production. Developers use this feature to view search responses in their indexed, document-based format. Part of a developer’s job when writing search indexers is to convert documents (the objects that get indexed) to the actual object and back again. This option allows developers to see how their objects are being indexed. Once enabled, expand each individual result whose document form you’d like to view by clicking the Details… link below the result summary.
- View in Context
- When an asset is clicked, show it in its native application. For example, if you click on a blog post in the search results, you’ll be taken to the page where the blog entry is posted in the Blogs application. Note that you will no longer be in the search context after clicking on a search result. When this option is unchecked, the asset displays in an Asset Publisher window while still in the search context. If you have the right permissions, you can even edit the content directly from the Search context. Click the back arrow to return to the search results.
- Display Main Query
- Show the exact search query that the app generated to the search engine. Never use this in production; this is for development purposes only.
- Display Open Search Results
- Show results from third party Open Search plugins, if they are installed. This is for backward compatibility only: developers are encouraged to re-design their search code, and then custom assets are aggregated with native Liferay Portal assets seamlessly.
For further reading, check out how to return suggestions for better search terms (for example, “Did you mean…”) when not enough results are returned initially.
Filtering Results with Facets
Results are filtered using facets. The usage by end users is quite simple and intuitive. Most users will have encountered similar filtering capabilities in other online applications, particularly during online commerce activities. Users enter a search term, are presented with a list of results and search facets, which you can think of as buckets that group results together if they share a common characteristic.
Administrators can configure facets. Read about configuring facets to learn more.
Search Results Relevance
How does the search engine decide which results to return at the top of the list? It uses the concept of relevance. Relevance is based on a score calculated by the search engine. There are numerous factors contributing to the total score of a returned document. This section aims to give an overview and provide general understanding on the calculation of relevance.
The relevance scoring approach used in Liferay Portal can be distilled into three principles:
Term Frequency: If a term appears more than once in the fields of a document, the document’s relevancy score is higher than if it only appeared once. Recall that the document is the entity being searched for in the search engine. It’s like the corresponding entity in the database, but may not include all of the same fields. Example:
Inverse Document Frequency: Matching terms that are rare in the index provide a higher relevance score than those that are more common. Example:
Field-Length Norm: Matches from shorter fields, like title, score higher than those in longer fields, like content.
Those principles determine the order of results returned in the search portlet. To look in depth at the relative contribution of each to a result set’s documents, access Elasticsearch’s API via URL, like this generalized form:
Consider a specific example for an Elasticsearch running on
localhost:9200, with an index name of
liferay-20116, with a type of
LiferayDocumentType, and searching the title field for the word ziti. Importantly, the
explain option is appended to the URL, ensuring that the scoring details are returned for each result:
The results are returned in JSON format:
A logical outcome of these three scoring principles is that title is king. A match in the title field will produce a good score, because of the field length norm principle. Title fields are usually short, so a match there will score well. A phrase match in the title field, where multiple consecutive words from the search term match a phrase in the title field, is even better. An exact match between the search term and the title is pretty much the supreme overlord of search scoring.
Permissions and Search Results
Liferay Portal includes a robust role-based permissions system. It’s important that users lacking permission to view an asset also can’t see it in the search results. A logged in user with the Site Administrator role will likely see more search results than a guest user to the site. To understand whether a user has permissions to see an asset in the search results, the answer to this question must be yes:
Does the user occupy a role that has VIEW permission on an asset?
If the user has VIEW permission on an asset, then the asset is returned in the search results.
Another important concept is that of post filtering. Search results are returned from the search index to the Search portlet, and a final round of permission checks is performed prior to presenting results on the UI. For example, the user searches for the term liferay, and the search engine returns all relevant forum posts. As the Search Portlet iterates thru the list of relevant forum posts, it performs one last permission check of the post to ensure the user can view the post and the categories it exists within. If a matching forum post exists in a category the user doesn’t have permission to view, it isn’t displayed in the list of search results. Post filtering is done prior to display, so the facet count is not updated. This can result in inaccurate result counts in the Search Portlet. This behavior will be fixed in the next version of the Search application.
Search and Staging
Liferay Portal supports the concept of staging, where content is first placed in a preview and testing environment before being published for consumption by end users (on the live site). Content added to the search index is marked so that the search API can decipher whether an item is live or not. In the live version of the site, it’s quite simple: only content that’s marked for the live site is searchable.
In the staged version of the site, all content, whether live or staged, is searchable.
Search results must be displayed to users to be useful. If each result was displayed in its JSON document form, users would faint and User Experience Designers around the world might spontaneously combust. Liferay values end users and User Experience Designers alike, so a list of result summaries is returned instead.
So what’s included in a result summary? The information from a document that the asset’s developer felt is most useful to end users searching for the asset. That means that each asset can have different fields included in their search result summaries. For assets with text content, a common summary format is to include the title and the content of the asset. The title is displayed first. The asset type (for example, Document in the example image above) is always displayed on the second line, and a snippet of the content that includes a match to the search term on the last line. Some assets, like Documents and Media documents, display the description field if no content is available to display.
Users are different. Only the user’s full name and the asset type (User) are displayed in user result summaries.
For assets that contain other assets (Web Content, Documents & Media, and Bookmarks folders) or whose content is not amenable to display (Dynamic Data List Records and Calendar Events), it makes more sense to display the title, asset type, and description in results summaries. There’d never be anything in a content field for these assets.
Bookmarks entries show the title and the URL.
By now you’ve probably noticed that search terms appearing in the summary are highlighted.
Highlighting is a helpful visual cue that hints at why the result is returned, but beware. A hit can score well, and thus be returned near the top of the results, without having any highlights. That’s because not all indexed fields appear in the summary. Consider a user named Arthur C. Clarke. He has an email address of *firstname.lastname@example.org*, which is searchable. Because results summaries for users only contain the full name of the user, searching for Mr. Clarke by his email address returns the user, but no term is highlighted.
There are additional cases where search results won’t have highlighting, so don’t automatically assume the Search application is revolting if you see results summaries with no highlighted terms in them. On the other hand, if the search results list returns a list of results that display only “I’m sorry, [Your Name], I’m afraid I can’t do that”1, then the Search application is definitely revolting. Kill your Liferay Portal instance immediately and/or hide under your desk until the AI revolution is thwarted or completed.