Most WordPress users, either working for clients or just building personal web sites, have probably walked away from the search experience less than impressed.
Jonathan Christopher, the developer behind SearchWP, was one of those people and he decided to do something about it. His plugin takes the basic functionality of WordPress’ search and improves upon it in a number of ways. SearchWP supports searching e-commerce details, PDFs and documents, custom fields, taxonomy terms and more.
Jonathan took the time out of his schedule to answer my questions about building a business around extending a core WordPress feature, the importance of customer feedback in developing his product and what comes next for SearchWP.
How did the idea to build SearchWP come about?
I had been wanting what eventually turned into SearchWP for years as I built out sites for clients. There were some solutions out there that did a really good job at improving WordPress’ search, but I found myself wanting more control over the specifics of how results were found and sorted.
Specifically I wanted to be able to have fine-grained control over how Custom Fields were treated because nearly all of the content of my client sites was being stored as Custom Fields, some more “valuable” to search than others. None of the existing solutions out there gave me that level of control.
Can you tell me a bit about the people behind SearchWP? Are you a one man show or do you have a team working on the plugin?
SearchWP and everything surrounding it is built by me.
I’m a web developer that’s been working with WordPress since version 2.5. I first got into theme development which really solidified my opinion about WordPress being super adaptable to my needs which was primarily building sites for clients.
I soon got into plugin development and have been building WordPress powered sites by hand from the ground up ever since.
When it comes to SearchWP specifically I’ve written every line of code and so far I’ve handled support efforts as well. I do all of the marketing as well, which is admittedly lacking but something I find super interesting and challenging.
I think improving core functionality in WordPress is an amazing way to come up with plugin ideas. As a developer I see so many facets of WP that could use huge improvements. Is it hard to convince the consumer of that though? I would imagine most people think search is “good enough” for their needs without more education.
It’s interesting, I think I’d agree with you that many people do feel native WordPress search is “good enough”, especially since there were some improvements made to the native search algorithm which pushed it beyond simple matches to titles and main content sorted by date.
SearchWP’s customers though already recognize their pain point, so by the time a developer is a potential customer, they already have a problem at hand. I spent some time trying to market SearchWP as something to enhance your existing website, even if you didn’t see search as a pain point, but that proved to be a massive waste of time and effort since there is a large market of potential customers that already recognize it as a problem.
Was your pricing model difficult to settle on or was it something that you picked early and stuck with through today?
The pricing model itself has always been the same. I made the decision to go with the model by carefully paying attention to what the other big players in the commercial WordPress plugin space were doing. Thankfully many of them are very open about the pricing models they’ve chosen, what they liked, and what they didn’t like. I used that information to pick what I felt would be a good model and I’m happy with the choice.
I ask this of everyone with an extension based plugin: how do you pick what to build next and which extensions proved to be the most difficult to develop and why?
All of my product ideas (including SearchWP and all of SearchWP’s extensions) come from specific demand.
I’m my own best customer when it comes to SearchWP itself, I wanted something that does what SearchWP does primarily to use on the client sites I’m building. I knew for a fact there were other developers out there like me that would appreciate SearchWP for what it is as well.
SearchWP’s customers have dictated what Extensions exist today, and what’s on the backlog to build out. The more tickets I get asking about functionality or requesting new features, the more likely it is I’ll build out an Extension.
It’s simple, but responding directly to demand has been really effective in my opinion. Customers aren’t shy about making requests, so listening to them and thinking about how specific requests can perhaps be generalized a bit can allow you to come up with solutions to a number of problems all at once.
What’s one piece of advice or warning you wish someone had told you before you started developing SearchWP?
I wish I told myself to say “no” so quickly to early customer requests.
There are a few things that exist in SearchWP today that are a result of my being shortsighted in the early versions. That combined with every new product owner wanting to make those early customers as happy as possible can result in decisions being made that are going to make one of your customers really happy, but also potentially introduce recurring issues in the form of support tickets forever.
SearchWP’s hooks and Extensions have been indispensable when it comes to making single customers happy without interfering with the overall product implementation, I wish I gave those two things an even higher priority than I did early on.
What’s next for SearchWP?
Right now I’m finalizing the next Pro Extension set for release within the next month or two.
I’m also thinking about potentially expanding SearchWP’s capabilities in some areas, but that expansion would involve a significant amount of refactoring and I’m just not quite sure the benefit is going to outweigh the cost in the long run. The developer in me is screaming “go for it!” but my business self is doing a good job of putting the brakes on for the time being
I’ve learned a ton since building the first version of SearchWP (typical for every programmer) and I’d love to apply that knowledge across the board, but I’m trying to give the business side a bit more influence when it comes to making decisions overall.