Ngrams for Partial Matchingedit

As we have said before, “You can find only terms that exist in the inverted index.” Although the prefix, wildcard, and regexp queries demonstrated that that is not strictly true, it is true that doing a single-term lookup is much faster than iterating through the terms list to find matching terms on the fly. Preparing your data for partial matching ahead of time will increase your search performance.

Preparing your data at index time means choosing the right analysis chain, and the tool that we use for partial matching is the n-gram. An n-gram can be best thought of as a moving window on a word. The n stands for a length. If we were to n-gram the word quick, the results would depend on the length we have chosen:

  • Length 1 (unigram): [ q, u, i, c, k ]
  • Length 2 (bigram): [ qu, ui, ic, ck ]
  • Length 3 (trigram): [ qui, uic, ick ]
  • Length 4 (four-gram): [ quic, uick ]
  • Length 5 (five-gram): [ quick ]

Plain n-grams are useful for matching somewhere within a word, a technique that we will use in Ngrams for Compound Words. However, for search-as-you-type, we use a specialized form of n-grams called edge n-grams. Edge n-grams are anchored to the beginning of the word. Edge n-gramming the word quick would result in this:

  • q
  • qu
  • qui
  • quic
  • quick

You may notice that this conforms exactly to the letters that a user searching for “quick” would type. In other words, these are the perfect terms to use for instant search!