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Author Archives: Tope Alabi


Search is the compass of the internet. It guides us to the content that we are really looking for and helps avoid the stuff we don’t really care about. Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work. It turns out that beyond just the complexity of installing and configuring a search server, it can also be difficult to account for the various use cases of your search tool. Lets take a quick look at how The Mechanism engineers were able to tackle this challenge when building a restaurant search application for SafeFARE.

The good folks at foodallergy.org enlisted our services to build a restaurant search application that will allow users to find allergy-aware restaurants based on any combination of 9 criteria. Using the Ruby on Rails framework and Sunspot Solr (a Ruby DSL for the Lucene Apache Solr search server) we built this search app, and learned a few things on the way.

If a user searches for restaurants in a ZIP code should we only return restaurants within that ZIP code, or should we include restaurants from other nearby ZIP codes in our search results? And if we include other ZIP codes, how many other ZIP codes? How should we order the results? These and other similar questions helped up to come up with the structure of our search controller.
Figure 1.1
if params[:search].present?
@search = Restaurant.solr_search do
fulltext params[:restaurant_name] # runs a full text search of
with(:approved, :true) #facets approved restaurants
if params[:cuisine_search].present? #user also entered cuisine preference
any_of do
params[:cuisine_search].each do |tag|
with(:cuisines_name, tag) # facet by matching cuisines
end
end
end
if params[:address].present? || params[:city_search].present? || params[:state_search].present? || params[:zip_search].present?
#if any location fields are present, geocode that location
with(:location).in_radius(*Geocoder.coordinates(whereat), howfar)
#facet based on user given location,
end
order_by_geodist(:location,request.location.latitude,request.location.longitude)
@restaurants = @search.results
end

It took us about a week but we were finally able to come up with enough if statements to cover every one of the 362,880 possible combinations of search queries. Figure 1.1 is a small sampling of how we implement search when a user types in a restaurant name, cuisine preference, and restaurant location. First we search the solr index for whatever the user enters in the restaurant_name field, then cut that list down to only the approved restaurants, then we check to see if the user also entered a cuisine preference, if so we facet our list down to restaurants that match that cuisine, if the user did not enter a cuisine, we skip that step, then we check if the user entered a location that they would like to search like a city, or state, and we facet our list down to only restaurant’s in that area. Using this strategy we can create sort of a Venn diagram that allows us to drill down only to the information that we want, and point that result to the restaurant variable. To increase the functionality of the site, The Mechanism engineers implemented an IP lookup to automatically detect the IP address and location of the user, and order search results by how close the restaurant is to the user.

A second major challenge that many developers face when using a search server is deployment. In order to use solr in a production environment, you will need a Java app servlet like Tomcat or Jetty, and you will need an instance of Apache Solr. Developers may consider installing standalone versions of Tomcat and Solr Sunspot depending on their hardware capabilities, but sunspot comes bundled with a Jetty server which can be used in production by running the command RAILS_ENV=production rake sunspot:solr:start

And voila! we have implemented an advanced search tool that will help users find allergy-aware restaurants all across the nation and may even save somebody’s life one day.