Filtered by Elasticsearch


Benchmark comparison of Elasticsearch highlighters

July 5, 2023
0 comments Elasticsearch

tl;dr; fvh is marginally faster than unified and unified is a bit faster than plain.

When you send a full-text search query to Elasticsearch, you can specify (if and) how it should highlight, with HTML tags, highlights. E.g.

The correct way to index data into <mark>Elasticsearch</mark> with (Python) <mark>elasticsearch</mark>-dsl

Among other configuration options, you can pick one of 3 different highlighter algorithms:

  1. unified (default)
  2. plain
  3. fvh

The last one, fvh, requires that you index more at index-time (in particular to add term_vector="with_positions_offsets" to the mapping). In a previous benchmark I did, the total document size on disk, as described by http://localhost:9200/_cat/indices?v grew by 38%.

I bombarded my local Elasticsearch 7.7 instance with thousands of queries collected from logs. Some single-word, some multi-word. The fields it highlights are things like title (~5-50 words) and body (~100-2,000 words).
Basically, I edited the search query by testing one at a time. For example:

search_query = search_query.highlight(
-   "title", fragment_size=120, number_of_fragments=1, type="unified"
+   "title", fragment_size=120, number_of_fragments=1, type="plain"


After doing 1,000 searches 3 different times per each highlighter type option, and recording the times it took I recorded the following:

(milliseconds per query, lower is better)

  MEAN  18.1ms
  MEDIAN 19.0ms

  MEAN  24.5ms
  MEDIAN 27.5ms

  MEAN  16.1ms
  MEDIAN 17.6ms

Thin marginal win for fvh over unified.


Conclusion? Or should I say "Caveats" instead? There's a lot more to it than raw performance speed. In this benchmark, it takes ~20 milliseconds to search on 2 different indexes, each with a scoring function and indexes containing between 1,000 and 5,000 documents with hundreds of thousands of words. So it's pretty minor.

Each highlighter performs slightly differently too, so you'd have to study the outcome a bit more carefully to get a better feel for if it works the way you and your team prefer it to work.

If there's any conclusion, other than the boring usual "it depends on your setup and preferences", the performance difference is noticeable but not blowing you away. It makes sense that fvh is a bit faster because you've paid for it by indexing more upfront (the offsets) at the expense of memory.

First impressions of Meilisearch and how it compares to Elasticsearch

January 26, 2023
1 comment Elasticsearch

tl;dr Meilisearch is like Elasticsearch but simpler. Decent parity in functionality and performance, but definitely intriguing if you don't already know Elasticsearch or want to run with fewer resources.

Meilisearch is a full-text search solution that you can use to power a really good site-search solution. My personal blog uses Elasticsearch but I wanted to experiment with switching to Meilisearch. This blog post is about some impressions based on this experiment.

Here are some of my observations:

Memory usage

When I start Elasticsearch and index all my blog posts and all comments, on the Activity Monitor that java process uses 1.3GB. The meilisearch process peaks at 290MB.

Indexing performance

In my case, it doesn't matter. When you constantly update the index (Elasticsearch) the time is unimportantly small when the dataset is small.
If you do a mass-reindexing you do that, in Elasticsearch, by creating a new index with a timestamp (e.g. blogpost-20230126134512) and then swap the alias with which you send your search queries. In that strategy, it doesn't matter how many seconds it takes because nobody's waiting for it to finish fast.

At the moment I don't even know how to append more to a Meilisearch index. I only know how to index everything all at once.

Note with the Elasticseach SDK (in Python) you can pass a generator to the parallel_bulk helper function meaning you can kinda "stream" in all the documents without loading them all into memory. I.e. I can't do queued = index.add_documents(get_docs_iterator()) so I have to instead do queued = index.add_documents(list(get_docs_iterator())).

Complex relevancy is easier, but more magic

Ranking search results by "matchness" is easy. I.e. when the search terms are "more present" it's likely to be more relevant. Elasticsearch sorts by _score by default. So does Meilisearch. In reality, you want to control that more. In my use case, I want the ranking to be a function of "matchness" and popularity (which is a number I derive from pageview metrics). In Elasticsearch you have the power writing a "Function score query" which gives you lots of flexibility to control exactly how. E.g. multiply or sum or an average or combination where you write a log function.

With Meilisearch you can only control the sort order of relevancy "algorithms". An example is:

+ "popularity:desc",

I can't exactly phrase myself how I'd exactly prefer it but it feels a bit like magic. The lack of functionality also speaks to a strength of Meilisearch in that it's easy to get something to incorporate it.

Highlighting is easy

What I want is that the title to be highlighted. In full. For the text I'd rather have snippets that focus where the highlights appear within the text. This was a breeze! Here's how you do it:

res = client.index("blogitems").search(
        "attributesToHighlight": ["title", "text"],
        "highlightPreTag": "<mark>",
        "highlightPostTag": "</mark>",
        "attributesToCrop": ["text"],
        "cropLength": 30,

Relevancy in between fields is too basic

In Elasticsearch you use a boost multiplier to specify, that the title is more important than the body. For example:

from elasticsearch_dsl import Q


title_match = Q("match", title={"query": word, "boost": 3.5}) 
body_match = Q("match", body={"query": word, "boost": 1.0})
match = title_match | body_match

That means you can express that the title is 3.5 times more important than the match on body.

With Meilisearch you have no such functionality (as far as I can see) but you can say that title > body and the way you do that is a bit odd. It's the order with which you define the searchable fields.

Search performance

My dataset is small. About 2,000 documents. I wasn't able to measure a significant difference. In both my search query implementations the time it takes is between 10 and 30 milliseconds. Both are fast enough. The time that matters is the networking overheads. The networking to and fro the database probably matters more but if the network is localhost the search time is irrelevant.

In conclusion

When you're already comfortable and versed in the more powerful beast that is Elasticsearch, it's less relevant. However, Meilisearch feels like a nicer experience in its simplicity if you're confronted with a choice on your next full-text search project.

You could say that in terms of core search functionality, to me, Meilisearch sits between PostgreSQL's full-text and Elasticsearch.

What often matters more, if the project is a team effort that involves many people that might outlast you, the operational side matters more. I.e. do you install it yourself or do you use a proprietary cloud provider (which both Elastic and Meilisearch Cloud are) then that's what needs to be more carefully considered? It's good to know though that Meilisearch has most of the core functionality, including great documentation, to build something really great.

The correct way to index data into Elasticsearch with (Python) elasticsearch-dsl

May 14, 2021
0 comments Python, MDN, Elasticsearch

This is how MDN Web Docs uses Elasticsearch. Daily, we build all the content and then upload it all using elasticsearch-dsl using aliases. Because there are no good complete guides to do this, I thought I'd write it down for the next person who needs to do something similar. Let's jump straight into the code. The reader will need a healthy dose of imagination to fill in their details.



from datetime.datetime import utcnow

from elasticsearch_dsl import Document

PREFIX = "myprefix"

class MyDocument(Document):
    title = Text()
    body = Text()
    # ...

    class Index:
        name = (

What's important to note here is that the is dynamically allocated every single time the module is imported. It's not very important exactly what it is called but it's important that it becomes unique each time.
This means that when you start using MyDocument it will automatically figure out which index to use. Now, it's time to create the index and bulk publish it.

# Note! This example code skips over things like progress bars
# and verbose logging and misc sanity checks and stuff.

from elasticsearch.helpers import parallel_bulk
from elasticsearch_dsl import Index
from elasticsearch_dsl.connections import connections

from .models import MyDocument, PREFIX

def index(buildroot: Path, url: str, update=False):
    * 'buildroot' is where the files are we're going to read and index
    * 'url' is the host URL for the Elasticsearch server
    * 'update' is if just want to "cake on" a couple of documents 
      instead of starting over and doing a complete indexing.

    # Connect and stuff
    connections.create_connection(hosts=[url], retry_on_timeout=True)
    connection = connections.get_connection()
    health =
    status = health["status"]
    if status not in ("green", "yellow"):
        raise Exception(f"status {status} not green or yellow")

    if update:
        for name in connection.indices.get_alias():
            if name.startswith(f"{PREFIX}_"):
                document_index = Index(name)
            raise IndexAliasError(
                f"Unable to find an index called {PREFIX}_*"

        # Confusingly, `._index` is actually not a private API.
        # It's the documented way you're supposed to reach it.
        document_index = MyDocument._index

    def generator():
        for doc in Path(buildroot):
            # The reason for specifying the exact index name is that we might
            # be doing an update and if you don't specify it, elasticsearch_dsl
            # will fall back to using whatever Document._meta.Index automatically
            # becomes in this moment.
            yield to_search(doc, _index=document_index._name).to_dict(True)

    for success, info in parallel_bulk(connection, generator()):
        # 'success' is a boolean
        # 'info' has stuff like:
        #  - info["index"]["error"]
        #  - info["index"]["_shards"]["successful"]
        #  - info["index"]["_shards"]["failed"]

    if update:
        # When you do an update, Elasticsearch will internally delete the
        # previous docs (based on the _id primary key we set).
        # Normally, Elasticsearch will do this when you restart the cluster
        # but that's not something we usually do.
        # See
        # Now we're going to bundle the change to set the alias to point
        # to the new index and delete all old indexes.
        # The reason for doing this together in one update is to make it atomic.
        alias_updates = [
            {"add": {"index": document_index._name, "alias": PREFIX}}
        for index_name in connection.indices.get_alias():
            if index_name.startswith(f"{PREFIX}_"):
                if index_name != document_index._name:
                    alias_updates.append({"remove_index": {"index": index_name}})
        connection.indices.update_aliases({"actions": alias_updates})

    print("All done!")

def to_search(file: Path, _index=None):
    with open(file) as f:
        data = json.load(f)
    return MyDocument(

A lot is left to the reader as an exercise to fill in but these are the most important operations. It demonstrates how you can

  1. Correctly create indexes
  2. Atomically create an alias and clean up old indexes (and aliases)
  3. How you can add to an existing index

After you've run this you'll see something like this:

$ curl http://localhost:9200/_cat/indices?v
health status index                   uuid                   pri rep docs.count docs.deleted store.size
yellow open   myprefix_20210514141421 vulVt5EKRW2MNV47j403Mw   1   1      11629            0     28.7mb         28.7mb

$ curl http://localhost:9200/_cat/aliases?v
alias    index                   filter routing.index is_write_index
myprefix myprefix_20210514141421 -      -             -              -


When it comes to using the index, well, it depends on where your code for that is. For example, on MDN Web Docs, the code that searches the index is in an entirely different code-base. It's incidentally Python (and elasticsearch-dsl) in both places but other than that they have nothing in common. So for the searching, you need to manually make sure you write down the name of the index (or name of the alias if you prefer) into the code that searches. For example:

from elasticsearch_dsl import Search

def search(params):
    search_query = Search(index=settings.SEARCH_INDEX_NAME)

    # Do stuff to 'search_query' based on 'params'

    response = search_query.execute()   
    for hit in response:
        # ...

If you're within the same code that has that models.MyDocument in the first example code above, you can simply do things like this:

from elasticsearch_dsl import Index
from elasticsearch_dsl.connections import connections

from .models import PREFIX

def analyze(
    url: str,
    text: str,
    analyzer: str,
    index = Index(PREFIX)
    analysis = index.analyze(body={"text": text, "analyzer": analyzer})
    # ...

How MDN's site-search works

February 26, 2021
3 comments Web development, Django, Python, MDN, Elasticsearch

tl;dr; Periodically, the whole of MDN is built, by our Node code, in a GitHub Action. A Python script bulk-publishes this to Elasticsearch. Our Django server queries the same Elasticsearch via /api/v1/search. The site-search page is a static single-page app that sends XHR requests to the /api/v1/search endpoint. Search results' sort-order is determined by match and "popularity".


The challenge with "Jamstack" websites is with data that is too vast and dynamic that it doesn't make sense to build statically. Search is one of those. For the record, as of Feb 2021, MDN consists of 11,619 documents (aka. articles) in English. Roughly another 40,000 translated documents. In English alone, there are 5.3 million words. So to build a good search experience we need to, as a static site build side-effect, index all of this in a full-text search database. And Elasticsearch is one such database and it's good. In particular, Elasticsearch is something MDN is already quite familiar with because it's what was used from within the Django app when MDN was a wiki.

Note: MDN gets about 20k site-searches per day from within the site.



When we build the whole site, it's a script that basically loops over all the raw content, applies macros and fixes, dumps one index.html (via React server-side rendering) and one index.json. The index.json contains all the fully rendered text (as HTML!) in blocks of "prose". It looks something like this:

  "doc": {
    "title": "DOCUMENT TITLE",
    "summary": "DOCUMENT SUMMARY",
    "body": [
        "type": "prose", 
        "value": {
          "id": "introduction", 
          "title": "INTRODUCTION",
          "content": "<p>FIRST BLOCK OF TEXTS</p>"
   "popularity": 0.12345,

You can see one here: /en-US/docs/Web/index.json


Next, after all the index.json files have been produced, a Python script takes over and it traverses all the index.json files and based on that structure it figures out the, title, summary, and the whole body (as HTML).

Next up, before sending this into the bulk-publisher in Elasticsearch it strips the HTML. It's a bit more than just turning <p>Some <em>cool</em> text.</p> to Some cool text. because it also cleans up things like <div class="hidden"> and certain <div class="notecard warning"> blocks.

One thing worth noting is that this whole thing runs roughly every 24 hours and then it builds everything. But what if, between two runs, a certain page has been removed (or moved), how do you remove what was previously added to Elasticsearch? The solution is simple: it deletes and re-creates the index from scratch every day. The whole bulk-publish takes a while so right after the index has been deleted, the searches won't be that great. Someone could be unlucky in that they're searching MDN a couple of seconds after the index was deleted and now waiting for it to build up again.
It's an unfortunate reality but it's a risk worth taking for the sake of simplicity. Also, most people are searching for things in English and specifically the Web/ tree so the bulk-publishing is done in a way the most popular content is bulk-published first and the rest was done after. Here's what the build output logs:

Found 50,461 (potential) documents to index
Deleting any possible existing index and creating a new one called mdn_docs
Took 3m 35s to index 50,362 documents. Approximately 234.1 docs/second
Counts per priority prefixes:
    en-us/docs/web                 9,056
    *rest*                         41,306

So, yes, for 3m 35s there's stuff missing from the index and some unlucky few will get fewer search results than they should. But we can optimize this in the future.


The way you connect to Elasticsearch is simply by a URL it looks something like this:

It's an Elasticsearch cluster managed by Elastic running inside AWS. Our job is to make sure that we put the exact same URL in our GitHub Action ("the writer") as we put it into our Django server ("the reader").
In fact, we have 3 Elastic clusters: Prod, Stage, Dev.
And we have 2 Django servers: Prod, Stage.
So we just need to carefully make sure the secrets are set correctly to match the right environment.

Now, in the Django server, we just need to convert a request like GET /api/v1/search?q=foo&locale=fr (for example) to a query to send to Elasticsearch. We have a simple Django view function that validates the query string parameters, does some rate-limiting, creates a query (using elasticsearch-dsl) and packages the Elasticsearch results back to JSON.

How we make that query is important. In here lies the most important feature of the search; how it sorts results.

In one simple explanation, the sort order is a combination of popularity and "matchness". The assumption is that most people want the popular content. I.e. they search for foreach and mean to go to /en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Reference/Global_Objects/Array/forEach not /en-US/docs/Web/API/NodeList/forEach both of which contains forEach in the title. The "popularity" is based on Google Analytics pageviews which we download periodically, normalize into a floating-point number between 1 and 0. At the of writing the scoring function does something like this:

rank = doc.popularity * 10 + search.score

This seems to produce pretty reasonable results.

But there's more to the "matchness" too. Elasticsearch has its own API for defining boosting and the way we apply is:

  • match phrase in the title: Boost = 10.0
  • match phrase in the body: Boost = 5.0
  • match in title: Boost = 2.0
  • match in body: Boost = 1.0

This is then applied on top of whatever else Elasticsearch does such as "Term Frequency" and "Inverse Document Frequency" (tf and if). This article is a helpful introduction.

We're most likely not done with this. There's probably a lot more we can do to tune this myriad of knobs and sliders to get the best possible ranking of documents that match.

Web UI

The last piece of the puzzle is how we display all of this to the user. The way it works is that$locale/search returns a static page that is blank. As soon as the page has loaded, it lazy-loads JavaScript that can actually issue the XHR request to get and display search results. The code looks something like this:

function SearchResults() {
  const [searchParams] = useSearchParams();
  const sp = createSearchParams(searchParams);
  // add defaults and stuff here
  const fetchURL = `/api/v1/search?${sp.toString()}`;

  const { data, error } = useSWR(
    async (url) => {
      const response = await fetch(URL);
      // various checks on the response.statusCode here
      return await response.json();

  // render 'data' or 'error' accordingly here

A lot of interesting details are omitted from this code snippet. You have to check it out for yourself to get a more up-to-date insight into how it actually works. But basically, the window.location (and pushState) query string drives the fetch() call and then all the component has to do is display the search results with some highlighting.

The /api/v1/search endpoint also runs a suggestion query as part of the main search query. This extracts out interest alternative search queries. These are filtered and scored and we issue "sub-queries" just to get a count for each. Now we can do one of those "Did you mean...". For example: search for intersections.

In conclusion

There are a lot of interesting, important, and careful details that are glossed over here in this blog post. It's a constantly evolving system and we're constantly trying to improve and perfect the system in a way that it fits what users expect.

A lot of people reach MDN via a Google search (e.g. mdn array foreach) but despite that, nearly 5% of all traffic on MDN is the site-search functionality. The /$locale/search?... endpoint is the most frequently viewed page of all of MDN. And having a good search engine that's reliable is nevertheless important. By owning and controlling the whole pipeline allows us to do specific things that are unique to MDN that other websites don't need. For example, we index a lot of raw HTML (e.g. <video>) and we have code snippets that needs to be searchable.

Hopefully, the MDN site-search will elevate from being known to be very limited to something now that can genuinely help people get to the exact page better than Google can. Yes, it's worth aiming high!

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