One of the older questions in our area of the technological debate is whether search is a product or a feature. People point to the fact that search at www.google.com seems to be a product while the search bar in a product like Outlook seems to present a feature. So which is it?

At Haystack we feel search is a product. But search, in most contexts, is a product in the way a battery is a product. You put a battery in something to power it and then that thing provides the rest of the user experience. The battery isn’t all that fun by itself. But the better the battery, the better the whole experience is because your remote control car is faster, your videogame controller is longer-lasting, or your phone is more reliable. Better search makes everything else better.

It’s easy to see why users, however, perceive search as a feature. It seems like Google’s search engine is simply a feature within the larger ecosystem of products; it seems like the search box on websites and in apps is simply a feature to help users locate things efficiently. So, does it matter if search is a product or a feature and, if so, why?

At Haystack, it matters that search is a product because products have some things that features don’t: strict version control, coherent update regimes, rigorous testing of interoperability. Features tend to simply “tag along” with products and tend to enjoy little, if any, of this emphasis on versioning, updating, interoperability, robustness, and so on.

In the case of a search product, a typical major version from a Haystack customer might include a set of inputs, a corpus of user history data (at the user or cohort level), an algo (or set of algos), and a testbed record of what search behaviour is desirable or undesirable (also called a report card); our work is to take what’s there and fine-tune it using our technology.

In our inbox we often get inquiries that begin, “Can your tech make the search feature on my site better?” or similar. That’s a fine starting point for the conversation. But until you realize – and embrace – that search isn’t just a feature in your app or on your site but an actual product you’re offering to customers (one that, in many cases, influences which OTHER products you’re offering those customers), you’re unlikely to discover your business’s most valuable uses for search.

Search is a product that amplifies the visibility of- and portrays the desirability of – all of your other products, whether those are laptops, hammocks, kayaks, songs, or videos. In this sense, search isn’t just a product – it’s the most important product on your business’s site or app. So how many dollars and hours has your team spend making it better this year?