#506 WP-Tonic Show With Special Guest Jon Christopher of SearchWP

Jon Christopher. He is a long time WordPress fan & developer who loves the platform but saw room for improvement.

He built SearchWP, a drop-in replacement for native WordPress search that improves it in a number of ways.

He also writes on his personal site at https://jonchristopher.us, plus he has some code on GitHub, and maintain a number of WordPress plugins. If you have any additional questions or concerns please feel free to contact me.

Jonathan:     Welcome back folks, to the WP-Tonic Show. This is episode 506. We have great guests: Jonathan Christopher with us, and he is well known for his great plugin SearchWP. John could you quickly introduce yourself to the listeners and viewers?

John:              Yeah, absolutely. My name is John Christopher. John, Jonathan, it goes back and forth. I have been kind of tinkering with WordPress for a long time. I cut my teeth in the client services area, as a lot of us do. Over the past few years, I transitioned into product design and development. The biggest of which right now is SearchWP. Throughout those years of doing client development, I spent a lot of time on wordpress.org plugins area, just making plugins that I wanted to use for my client work. Which in turn, got the gears going in my brain for more product ideas. One thing led to another, and I found my way out of client work, into product work. That is what I am really doing now.

Jonathan:     That is great. I have my Co-host Agent. Agent would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the new listeners and viewers.

Adrian:           Hi everyone. My name is Adrian. I am the CEO and founder of Groundhogg. We build marketing, automation and sales tools, to help small businesses using WordPress, to launch their sales funnels.

Jonathan:     We are going to be discussing with John, the latest version of SearchWP. We are also going to be talking about some of the things that led them, to develop the plugin around doing customer work. However, we go into the main part of the show, I just want to discuss our great sponsors. I met our main sponsor Kinstar. They have been with us for the past couple of years. We also host the WP Tonic site with Kinstar. They are for WordPress hosting, where you use Google cloud, and they are just superb. It is speedy, how you steam.

Great interface. I think their interface is one of the strongest things. You might think well, ‘ Oh the interface’ but when you go to other hosting companies for clients and you try and try and use what they are providing and you go Kinstar, the UX design really matters, because you can find things really quickly. It is just superb. Another great feature is their support. Now we have all, whether for clients or for ourselves, found out then we have emailed certain hosting providers.

Then we have had to do the same again and again. Then we are passed around different people and we do not get anywhere. Then a couple of hours have just disappeared. Well, with Kinstar, you just do not get there. When I have had a problem, and that has only been occasionally, the person that I initially spoke to, was the person that solved the problem. I was not moved around, and I really appreciate that. So if you want quick hosting, at a reasonable price for your clients or for yourself, go over to Kinstar, buy one of their packages and really tell them that you heard about them on the WP Tonic Show.

Our 2nd sponsor is WP Fusion. Now in the modern world of connecting to CRMs, there are a lot of them like, ActiveCampaign and Drip. There are almost over 200, which WP Fusion will connect with. If you are into Modern Marketing, you need a modern CRM. If you have WordPress and you need a way of communicating with that CRM. Well, that is WP Fusion. It is a fantastic product, fantastic team. The great things of the show. So go over to, WP Fusion, see what they have to offer. Buy one of their products, and like previously, tell them that you heard about them on the WP Tonic Show. So John, you have a new version of SearchWP coming up. So what are the highlights in this new version, John?

John:              Well the take home message about the latest version, which is Version 4, is that, it was a complete rewrite. It was a complete rebuild. I built the initial version seven years ago. The origins of it came from the client work I was doing. As we all know, the native search feature of WordPress is kind of lacking. There are some solutions out there. As we developers tend to do, we like to build things for ourselves and re reinvent wheels, and redo things. That was the case here. I liked what was out there, but there were little details that I thought, would be neat to build in. I sought out how to build the plugin. Never having built a search engine before or anything like that. It was a kind of ‘trial by fire thing’. I wanted to see if I could do it.

So, as time went on, and as features were added and changed and hooks grew and the product matured. It came to a breaking point as far as technical debt goes. I had improved a lot in the past seven years, as a PHP developer. The JavaScript world completely flipped everything on its head. I integrated that, when and where I could, but it got to the point where, the feature requests coming from clients were such that the existing architecture of the plugin just, would not let it work. It got me a long way down the road.

It adapted to many customer needs along the way. There were few things that it just could not do, without changing enough where iterative development just was not going to work. You had to, shove it all off the table and start from scratch. So this past winter I decided to give myself two months. See how far I can get it done. I have gone over this rewrite, for probably the past two or three years, and thought, “You know, this might work”. I am not even sure that what I have planned is even going to work. Therefore, I said, I would give myself 2 months, to do a minimum viable product of a rebuild.

Depending on that, I would see whether or not I could actually get it released to the public. Long story short the test went really good. The initial development went really good. It was a lot of work, which many people usually frown upon. But given my use case, and me being very customer driven development I wanted to be able to adapt to what the customers were actually asking for now. I really do think that doing a rebuild at this point, is going to set up forward for the next, seven years of its life. So I thought it was worth this time.

Jonathan:     All right, that sounds amazing! Over to you Adrian.

Adrian:           So let us just talk about SearchWP for a little bit. What use cases, if you are running like a simple blog and the search bar is probably enough, just to search post content and post title. What use cases for a customer who is using SearchWP, would make it really stand out, and make it the only possible solution to solve their problem.

John:              Absolutely. The original inspiration was doing all this client work. If you do build more advanced sites that are more than, than a blog, like you mentioned. Where, you know, searching post content, excerpts and titles and sorting by date for the most part, is going to get you by, It is going to be okay. In this case, I was building and I was mostly using things like advanced custom fields, to store all the content. This stores all the content in the Metta table, which, you just do not want to search against because, performance wise, even with a handful of pages, you are going to start seeing slow query times. That kind of grows exponentially.

So, the original inspiration was, pretty much to allow me to implement a search where I could kind of customize the algorithm to take certain custom fields into account, titles here, post content there, and give individual weight to those content areas. For instance, the blog posts are not going to carry as much weight as the FAQ section, but the FAQ data is all started as a custom post type.

So, I want to be able to find out a way, to give certain weight to the FAQ and some weight, but less weight, to the blog posts. Because those are not like cornerstone content. That kind of set me off, and that was the original inspiration for wanting to build it. Searching more and returning results primarily based on relevance, as opposed to, simple matches and sorted by date. I wanted it to be a weighting system where, the most relevant results were the ones you are going to see first.

Adrian:           What kind of site would benefit from this slightly? What kind of sites out there, if you were to pick out an ideal site for a use case, that would use this. I mean, do you have an ideal customer and agency in mind? Who is your ideal person?

John:              So my ideal person was actually me, selfish as that is. A person out there, building client sites that uses advanced custom fields or your favourite custom field plugin, to store a lot of content that you want searchable. The other end of that, and what I have discovered along the lines is, there are other use cases like, WooCommerce, for instance. You can sweat the details of adding your product categories, your tags, all of that data in the tab area they have for, your SKUs and your Product Variations. All of that kind of goes everywhere, and native WordPress search does not search any of it. So, stuff like taxonomies, tags and categories, those are about as good as it gets for search keywords.

WooCommerce does not search them at all. Searchwp lets you bring in those taxonomies as well. Therefore, it is more about setting up, and it is not an automated approach to search. It lets you customize it, based on the site you have built. If you are going to sweat the details of actually setting up, plugin A, B and C to store the data in these areas, you can then map that to how you want your search to work. As opposed to just sending it off to a server in the cloud that is just going to return results based on what it thinks you want back. You have a little bit more control over that with SearchWP.

Adrian:           This is definitely like a developer-oriented product.

John:              Well, it is now. That came after the advice of some much wiser people in the industry. Because when I first started doing products, everybody is your customer. You want site owners to do it. It is one click. I am going to make it super easy for them. But someone looked me straight in the face and said, “You have a developer product”. So ever since then, my copy and all of the stuff I do, is more dictated towards them. At the same point, my approach to designing products is to still make them super easy for site owners to use, because it turns out developers like that stuff too. It is smart to do that regardless, but yes, it is definitely a developer tool.

Adrian:           I went through a similar process, where when you start out, everybody is your customer. The problem with selling to everybody is that you are actually selling to nobody. Nobody ends up buying. So wise words there? If you have a developer product, make it for developers. I have an agency product and a lot of my copy is focussed towards agencies. We still have like tons of just regular site owners, who sign up and that is kind of just the way that it goes.

Jonathan:     I was just wondering, you were saying that with this version, it is heavy on JavaScript and you have really had to delve into that. Can you give some insights about what that journey has been like?

John:              Absolutely. Another reason why I think that I have been able to stick with SearchWP for so long is that, it is one of those tools that you install and it either works or it does not. It does not do anything on the front end. All it does is pipe in, intercept searches and return the results. Your theme still does all of that. So, the way JavaScript came into play for me was the actual UI of the settings screen. I focus a lot on making that experience, undaunting. Something that actually empowers people to ratchet up the effectiveness of their search, without feeling overburdened by a million text areas and labels and check boxes.

Where you are not really quite sure what they do. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the user experience of actually configuring SearchWP, outside of the actual developer experience. Which I felt, I want to focus on a lot too. Which is another reason I wanted to do the rewrite, the developer experience in version three. It was fine, but it could have been a lot better. So before, is that better for me? All the JavaScript development I have been doing is just on the setting screen for engine configuration. Which is it is deceivingly complex, because the goal is to make it as easy as possible, for you to work with.

Adrian:           Is it just you as the developer?

John:              Yes. I have some help with support, which I am so blessed. He has helped in so many ways and for people who are also in the same boat, I recommend getting help with support as soon as possible. While it is beneficial to speak with your customers directly for their pain points, to adapt to that and make it better. Having someone to kind of offload when those times get stressful is super helpful. I am super thankful to have him helping me out. But, it is just me and him doing support.

Adrian:           I am curious about your support relationships. Is this like a full time employee or a Contractor? How is that relationship built?

John:              It is just an hourly-based Contractor. I put an ad up on a Post Status three years ago. I had one of those questions in, to make sure you actually read the jobless listing. I had something in there about; tell me how many stickers you have on your laptop?’ Or something like that. He was one of the few that actually read it and answered it. I chatted with him for a few minutes and right away, he was so super helpful. I think finding support people is a challenging thing. Because this is a very developer focused product, and he is just a fantastic developer, who has really great people skills.

I think that is extremely rare and thankfully he is on the other side of the world too. Now I have kind of almost 24 hours of coverage for support, which is helpful. I can wake up and he is been doing stuff while I have been sleeping, which has been so awesome. He is great to just toss ideas to, because he is so knowledgeable about the customers and the problems that we are trying to solve. He can just give me quick, honest feedback that I can get out of my own head and kind of bounce some ideas off themselves. It is been great.

Adrian:           So you found, you found this guy through Post Status?

John:              Yes.

Adrian:           That is pretty cool. I wonder if the job listing is still there, we should link it in the show notes.

John:              I would be curious to find out myself too.

Jonathan:     We are going to go for our break. When we come back, we are going to be discussing another really interesting area that John brought up. You know, he said that he got into this doing high-class customer work. He found it was drawing up. We are going to delve into his experiences of that, how the industry in the past couple of years has changed.

We will be back in a few moments, folks.

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Jonathan:     We are coming back. We have had an interesting discussion with John Christopher I have stumbled at the beginning, but I think I have warmed up. So John, in our pre-show discussion, we were talking about how you had a partner, and you were doing high-class client website, but you were finding that it was getting a bit difficult. So, do you want to expand on that discussion and give us some insights of, what your experience was around that?

John:              Absolutely. Not to go too far back, but my story begins in college. I was going for a degree in information science and policy. Which oddly enough, half of my class does software development, but it is was also the degree you got at the school, if you wanted to be a Librarian. So, it is all about science of organizing information. It was interesting because, I got to take linguistics classes, figure out how language works. Which, thankfully now actually has paid off a lot, in trying to make a search application.

However, in my senior year there, I saw a job listing. I think it was on Craigslist or something, for a local web agency. There was just this group of people in a basement of a Brownstone, in the city of that the college was in. I started working there and they were doing, forward thinking web development for customers. This was when the web was still brand new. I started working there doing development in Cold Fusion.

This company had this custom built CMS and Cold Fusion, that was at least 10 years ahead of its time. It was kind of, like what we are doing today, with advanced custom fields. So, it completely blew my mind. It was the most fun that I was having doing this work, because, I was learning it, one project to the next. I did not know what I was even doing. It was kind of ‘trial by fire’. Learning from the developers around me, learning how to work with clients.

When I got there, the agency had 5 or 6 people. By the time I left, it had grown to anywhere from 18 to 20 people or so. I quickly realized that the agency life was not for me. Because in order to have a company that big, you are not just doing websites. You are doing print materials, more insight into ad campaigns, SEO, this whole thing. My passion was not in those things. It was just in web development.

After a number of years there, with another guy that actually worked there, we both decided to go off on our own, and just stick to doing just websites. We thought there was a great market out there for people who are looking for these bespoke sites that are custom built with a focus on quality, not only on design, but on the backend too. I spent a lot of time there getting into WordPress and learning how to make it behave like, this Cold Fusion CMS that I was so used to and spoiled by.

That is when, ACF just started coming out and we were building all these sites. We were having a load of fun doing that. When we set off to start this company, it was called ‘Iron to Iron’. The whole goal was for it just to be my partner and I. He did all the design, all of the initial information architecture, all of that.

He is a fantastic artist in the traditional sense, but he is one of the best designers I have ever been able to work with, which has been so great. We just paired up really well. Our focus was doing sites for small to midsize businesses. We ended up finding our niche to be enterprise software companies, based out in New York City. Which was strange. We were in upstate New York and we were linked up with these software companies, and we would build these decently sized budget projects.

Jonathan:     If you do not mind me asking, what was the average budget? If you can remember.

John:              They were mid 5 figures up in the 6 figures. For a company of 2, knocking out a few of those projects a year was our goal. Our goal was to pay our mortgage, pay our rent and keep dinner on the table for our families. We were right in that sweet spot, where we wanted to be. It was working out terrifically for us. We had such fun working together. Our clients were great, because it was just the two of us. We had face time with these clients all the time. We would go do presentations, have meetings and many other things.

It was just a really open and communicative relationship amongst all of us. We ended up niching down and pitching ourselves as the web development team that you have not been able to facilitate internally yet. Therefore, we would only work on one project at a time. When we did that, if possible, we would pop into the office, we would work there for a number of weeks on end. We would really get to know the business, the people there, it was a very collaborative approach that we had, and it worked out really well.

However, over time, things started changing. The WordPress ecosystem absolutely exploded. With that came all of these tools. You could not walk down the street almost, without hearing the word Elementor anymore. Those tools have become so capable and so advanced. Not to mention all the ancillary products, like WooCommerce itself, has been doing a lot of stuff out of the box right now that used to need custom developers to do.

On the other end of that, we had agencies, big agencies with full teams of copywriters and dedicated information architecture people, who that is all they do. They could bring this entire army to completely and optimally tackle a project with budgets that they could not do before, because they got so good at doing their jobs. So, we are sitting in the middle here in our space. Just kind of crunching in and out and in and out. We found ourselves experiencing, that this middle market that we found ourselves in, has just been squeezed out.

It was proving more and more difficult to find people who wanted, for lack of a better way to explain it, 2 guys, to build their website. Because that is what we were, and that was our strong suit for the whole time. We look back on our agency experience, where we could hire 6 or 7 people and make these bigger agencies, but we did not want to do that. We saw what it was like to manage teams like that, but we still liked doing the work so much, that we did not want to stop doing the work. We did not want to manage people all the time and manage the projects. We still wanted to do the work, and if you are a manager, you do not get to do the work all that much.

Jonathan:      Do you think you could have been a little bit more creative there? Not as a criticism, but do you think you could have brought in another partner, that could have been the manager? That could have been the front that dealt with that part of the work that you did not really want to do.

John:              Well, we actually entertained that. We came really close to bringing someone on to be kind of a Sales or Marketing Manager to handle all of the leads and facilitate, curate and incubate new projects for us. We found that even abstracting ourselves away that much, took away from the vibe we had going. We really liked being there from initial email contact, all the way to launch day. We loved that. So that abstraction was just something, we were not really into. We did not think that we could provide the same level of service that we did. So we decided to just look around and see what all the options were. We decided, it makes the most sense to dissolve at this point. It was an awesome run while we had it going, but the times have changed, and we do not want to adapt in the way that the world has adapted.

Adrian:           I was going to ask obviously agency, small outfits like yourselves are still around, not all of them disappeared. I am curious if you have noticed, what other small outfits, or maybe you have some theories, on what small outfits should be doing to, find their markets. Since your middle market niche evaporated, is there just a different market that, if you are 2 guys building websites that you should be going after. Instead of wasting your time on the middle market that you are talking about?

John:              Yeah. That is a great question. I think what it comes down to is, making the most use of the tools out there to facilitate lowering budgets and, decreasing turnaround time. So if you are a smaller shop, I think you can take on more smaller projects. Turn them around quickly and effectively. That takes away from the nuance of like the artistic angle of actually, being able to afford the time to sit down and go through websites page by page. Which involves sitting down with company decision makers and getting their input on all of this.

I think that enough systems have been ‘commoditized’ if that is the word. However, you can turn around a site pretty quickly now, and it can be a great site. It might not be the bespoke/custom or masterpiece. If you are okay with that, I think you can make a killing. Absolutely. If you can totally, t your tool set to help you rapidly build sites, to the quality that you feel is appropriate. Then I think there is absolutely room still there for sure.

Adrian:           It is really going after like a quantity over quality type mind-set. If you are 2 guys building insights, you should be looking at volume. You wish to work with enterprise software developers. It seems weird that they would hire that stuff out. Is that not weird?

John:              I know, but they would stock up with the actual programmers, developing the software. That was their domain. They were not out there shopping for a great web team, because they are so focused on everything else. We kind of fell backwards into that, which was great. Because were far enough outside the city, where we can get New York City budgets for us living upstate. It was really cool. We got to go down there all the time and just chat with people, go around the city for a couple of days. It was awesome!

Adrian:           But now, they can just get one web guy to put out a WordPres website with Elementor in an hour.

John:              It is true. Yes. That is absolutely true.

Adrian:           I see how that would evaporate.

Jonathan:     Hopefully you can stay on for what we call Bonus Content, John, which is about another 15 minutes, because, I want to continue the discussion. I have my own views on how the market is changing. I would like to put them to you and get your feedback and Adrian’s as well. So we are going to wrap up the Podcast part of the show. It seems my ability to talk has come back. Before we really wrap it up, I just want to point out that Spencer Forman and I are doing another webinar in July. It is going to be the first Tuesday, the 7th of July. It is going to be on at 9:00 AM, Pacific Standard Time.

We are going to be covering Spencer’s products, LaunchFlows. We are going to combine it with an in-depth look at WP Fusion. It is going to be a really interesting webinar. You will be able to join us live and then be able to ask us questions, which is going to be great. Each should be a great resource and a great webinar. All you are going to have to do is go to the WP tonic website, go to the main navigation at the top. There is a button saying ‘Free Webinar’. You click on that and you sign up for the free webinar on that page. Hopefully, you will find time to join us. It should be a blast. So John, What is the best way for people to find out more about you and your great product SearchWP?

John:              You can always search wp.com. I also try and post to my site: jonchristopher.us My initial roots in the WordPress community were actually, blogging at a site called ‘Monday by Noon. Where I tried to force myself to post every Monday by noon, which actually worked for 6 years, but then I stopped. I am trying to get back into habit, but everybody is saying that, and I am terrible at actually keeping to it. So those are the 2 key places pretty much.

Jonathan:     I have to say John, It has been a blast interviewing you. You are really a fantastic and interesting guy. You have to come back here in 3 or 4 months and come back on the show and then we can have another discussion, I have really enjoyed it. Adrian, how can people find out more about you and what you are up to?

Adrian:           So if you are looking to actively replace an active campaign or another marketing automation solution with a WordPress focused solution, you can go to Groundhogg.io to learn more about our free plugin that will help you collect contacts and send email.

Jonathan:     I have to say, it is a great product listeners and viewers. It is a product I have been waiting for almost 18 months to 2 years, to come on the market. An Agent appeared and he agreed to become my co-host. It has been just a joy working with Adrian. It is a great project, Adrian and the amount of work you have put into it. You and your team, it is just amazing! We will be back next week. Folks. With another great guest and another great conversation. We will see you soon folks. Bye.

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