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Federated Search 101: A Guide on What It Is and How It Works

Co-founder, CEO
Tags :
15 mins

Federated Search is the backbone of eCommerce businesses that run a website today. With product catalogs growing at an astronomical rate every single day, eCommerce businesses need more storage options and newer databases. In fact, according to research by the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally by 2025--equivalent to 212,765,957 DVDs a day! This is where federated search comes into play. It empowers businesses to answer the following important questions:

  • How to ensure that your customers find exactly what they want accurately and instantly?
  • How to constantly and reliably accumulate data that gets collected every day?
  • How to ensure that the federated search engine solution is perfectly aligned with your business needs?

In this comprehensive guide, we will answer all these questions and deep dive into the workings of a federated search UI and what it means for your business. Let's get going.

But first, let's take a quick sneak peek at what's to come:

So, What is Federated Search Exactly?

Federated search refers to a technique that enables mid-to-low funnel users to:

  • Search multiple data sources at once 
  • Search multiple types of content 
  • Retrieve data from diverse content locations (such as your database, product catalog, etc.) with just one query and one search interface

If your customer knows exactly what it is that they want, federated search can help them reach their goal faster, more efficiently, and with fewer clicks (as well as effort).

How Does the Federated Search Engine work?

Here's a quick run-through of the federated search engine in action:

Step 1: You start by typing a single search query into your Windows Search or MacOS Spotlight. 

Step 2: The search engine retrieves data from multiple sources simultaneously via a search application that is built on top of the search engine.

Step 3: It returns results from different sources (think: apps, contacts, product pages, documents, multimedia assets, and webpages drawn from various sources) and presents them in one user interface to the user.

Note that the search engine makes use of different layouts to optimally showcase each type of content returned.

Why is Federated Search Important for Your Website?

Implementing federated search on your website offers 360-degree benefits for your website such as:

  • Improved user experience and increased user engagement: Considering users can search multiple databases and content formats at one go, federated search helps enhance the user experience and drive user engagement. 
  • Improved click-through and conversion rates: With federated search, customers have to spend less effort and time in finding relevant information. The lesser the effort by a customer, the better the customer experience will be. By extension, your conversion, as well as click-through rates, will also go up.
  • Enhanced data management: It empowers businesses to manage data as well as search tools seamlessly. You can easily add new data location or content and integrate it into your existing federated search tool. You don't need to have an independent setup for each type of new content.
  • Enhanced data browsability: Think of a federated search engine as a centralized tool that enables you to add or restructure data easily. Plus, it helps keep the data searchable and allows users to navigate through different categories of data more easily. As a result, your customer's browsing experience improves as does your product's discoverability.
  • Better security: Since you only need to manage one search engine, your federated search tool becomes more secure and reliable. Whether you are monitoring or troubleshooting your tool, you don't need to manage multiple search tools for each data set.
  • Optimized search results: One of the biggest benefits of federated search is that it helps optimize the search results while making your content more usable as well as browsable. Plus, it helps improve the content relevance for your customers. This, in turn, boosts user engagement rates and provides invaluable insights into user intent and customer data. Basically, it throws light on what your users are searching for and how they are going about the same.

Pro tip: To make the most of the federated search feature, factor in various parameters for ranking your content instead of going for a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Two Types of Federated Search

Generally speaking, all federated search solutions make use of two components:

  • Index: Refers to data compilation that your customers wish to search within; the data is structured to facilitate efficient searches
  • Search function: Refers to the part that parses the index to identify reliable data within it in response to a given query

Federated search comprises two main approaches: Search-Time Merging and Index-Time Merging.


Search-Time Merging/Query-Time Merging

Index-Time Merging

How it works

Federated search tool runs separate searches on each data location; each individual data source uses a separate search engine.

It aggregates results from each of these searches into a final list.

This 'list' is shown to the user.

It involves creating a central, unified index of all of the searchable data that you want to include.


Simple and speedy: It is straightforward in approach and is the simplest as well as the quickest type of federated search to implement. Why? Because you don't have to aggregate all the information into a single index.

Data is up to date: It searches each index separately and can handle data in different formats.

No standardization needed: It doesn't require any standardization in the data.

Less effort to set up: You don't need to build a unified index to aggregate your data. The query federator will tap into the existing search indexing systems of each separate data source.

One location: It requires only one search engine and one index.

Data compatibility: It is compatible with data sources that don’t have local search tools available to support them.

Ease of use: You can use any data/content that lacks its own search engine, allowing organizations to leverage a wider range of data.

Speedy results: It generates results more quickly because there is no need to wait on local search tools to respond to a query.

Improved CX: It delivers a better user experience as the central index leverages sophisticated query enhancement, personalized algorithms, and relevant search results.

Add-on features: You can use filtering, auto-complete, and other useful features.


Effort-intensive: It requires you to run and monitor specific search tools for each data source. You will need to use a single tool that can handle all types of content. However, you'll need to ingest each data source in a different index.

Slow response time: Search results may be slow to show as the central search engine can't deliver the final results till all the individual search engines have responded.

Data relevance is complex: You may need to fine-tune the relevance for the aggregated results list, which can become tricky as the search engine may have trouble ranking various sources of data.

Complicated: It is more complicated to set up and maintain. Plus, it requires higher up-front effort to build the index, which can lead to a longer implementation time.

Different data formats: You must find a way to aggregate data from multiple locations into a single index, which is particularly difficult if all data sources don't exist in the same format.

Data relevance is an issue: Once data is fed into a single index, it still requires you to decide on a unique relevance strategy for all your different types of content, which is a complex endeavor.

Federated Search Examples in Action

Example 1: Retail

Ecommerce businesses need advanced site search functionality to pull up relevant results for customers. Otherwise, they risk overwhelming customers with too much information. By employing third-party federated search platforms such as Argoid, eCommerce businesses can enable customers to search for a key phrase or item they want in the search bar. The federated search functionality will search all the product categories  and guide customers to the product as quickly as possible. This will maximize the probability of a successful sale:

Federated Search in Action for Retail for Myntra


As shown above, federated search typically pulls up content from thousands of products, customer reviews, guides, and so on to present the most relevant and accurate results - all within seconds.

Example 2: Enterprise

Federated search is a must-have for large-scale enterprises that deal with multiple data sources day in and day out--whether it is on-site or in the cloud. These companies often have separate websites for recruitment, investor relations, customers, etc. Federated search will prevent users from landing on the incorrect website or worse, landing on a no results found page:

 An Example of a Failed Search Page on Office’s Website, Leading to a Dead-End for the Customer


This will reduce the chances of a poor user experience and double up as a win-win opportunity for the brand and the customer alike.

Example 3: Software and IT 

Software vendors can benefit from a fast-loading website that delivers accurate and relevant results for customers. Since customers need to factor in numerous parameters before purchasing software, the federated search feature emerges as a must-have for software enterprises. This functionality will:

  • Allow users to search the entire website--from blogs to documentation with a single query
  • Enable users to view search results in real-time--as the users type
  • Help categorize products into different groups to make them easier to interpret for the end-user
  • Empower users to use pictures and short descriptions to make content discovery and navigation easier and more accessible 

All these features will help SaaS vendors to deliver a positive user experience, from start to finish.

The Bottom Line

Federated search is ubiquitous and contextual in nature. You may have already experienced it without realizing it. While it is a known fact that users do not access website content based on search alone, federated search still plays a vital role in helping customers get the information they need within seconds, simultaneously from diverse touch-points. 

This is why you need an AI-powered search feature such as Argoid. Its fast, accurate, and AI-based search can boost  customer retention with hyper-relevant search results. If you wish to deliver personalized searches to your customers, Argoid is the way to go.

Federated search adds value and browsability to your website's content. Moreover, it laces your customer experience with unparalleled levels of ease, convenience, and simplicity.


Q1. What is a federated search?

Federated search signifies a technique that enables users to receive aggregated results from multiple data resources, all with a single search query.

Q2. What are the common information 'sources' for federated search?

The 'sources' refer to databases, documentation, websites, applications, project management software, knowledge management systems, blogs, and Content Management Systems.

Q3. What are the different components of federated search?

There are two components for Federated Search: Index, which is an aggregation of the data to search and helps drive efficient searches. The second one is a search function, which is the element that looks for relevant data among the index in response to a specific query. Together, these two components interact to make federated search a reality.

Q4. What are the benefits of federated search?

Federated search presents numerous benefits for big and small organizations alike such as high data security and reliability, more accurate search results, faster response times, improved user experience, higher conversion rates, and greater sales. All in all, customers get access to exactly the kind of information they want and when they want it.

Q5. Between Search-Time Merging and Index-Time Merging, which one is better?

If you want to maximize website/app performance, using an index-time merging architecture makes more sense. While the initial setup is effort-intensive, once your content is created into your central index, customers can search the data faster and get more relevant results, quickly and more effectively.

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