Information Retrieval with ArangoSearch

ArangoSearch is ArangoDB’s built-in search engine for full-text, complex data structures and more

ArangoSearch provides information retrieval features, natively integrated into ArangoDB’s query language and with support for all data models. It is primarily a full-text search engine, a much more powerful alternative to the full-text index type. It can index nested fields from multiple collections, optionally with transformations such as text normalization and tokenization applied, rank query results by relevance and more.

Example Use Cases

  • Perform federated full-text searches over product descriptions for a web shop, with the product documents stored in various collections.
  • Find information in a research database using stemmed phrases, case and accent insensitive, with irrelevant terms removed from the search index (stop word filtering), ranked by relevance based on term frequency (TFIDF).
  • Query a movie dataset for titles with words in a particular order (optionally with wildcards), and sort the results by best matching (BM25) but favor movies with a longer duration.

Getting Started with ArangoSearch

ArangoSearch introduces the concept of Views which can be seen as virtual collections. Each View represents an inverted index to provide fast full-text searching over one or multiple linked collections and holds the configuration for the search capabilities, such as the attributes to index. It can cover multiple or even all attributes of the documents in the linked collections.

ArangoSearch Views are not updated synchronously as the source collections change in order to minimize the performance impact. They are eventually consistent, with a configurable consolidation policy.

The input values can be processed by so called Analyzers which can normalize strings, tokenize text into words and more, enabling different possibilities to search for values later on.

Search results can be sorted by their similarity ranking to return the best matches first using popular scoring algorithms (Okapi BM25, TF-IDF), user-defined relevance boosting and dynamic score calculation.

Conceptual model of ArangoSearch interacting with Collections and Analyzers

Views can be managed in the Web UI, via an HTTP API and through a JavaScript API.

Views can be queried with AQL using the SEARCH operation. It takes a search expression composed of the fields to search, the search terms, logical and comparison operators, as well as ArangoSearch functions.

Create your first ArangoSearch View

  1. Create a test collection (e.g. food) and insert a few documents so that you have something to index and search for:
    • { "name": "avocado", "type": "fruit" } (yes, it is a fruit)
    • { "name": "carrot", "type": "vegetable" }
    • { "name": "chili pepper", "type": "vegetable" }
    • { "name": "tomato", "type": ["fruit", "vegetable"] }
  2. In the Web UI, click on VIEWS in the main navigation.
  3. Click on the Add View button, enter a name (e.g. food_view), confirm and click on the newly created View.
  4. You can toggle the mode of the View definition editor from Tree to Code to edit the JSON object as text.
  5. Replace "links": {}, with below configuration, then save the changes:
    "links": {
      "food": {
        "includeAllFields": true
      }
    },
    
  6. After a few seconds of processing, the editor will show you the updated link definition with default settings added:
    "links": {
      "food": {
        "analyzers": [
          "identity"
        ],
        "fields": {},
        "includeAllFields": true,
        "storeValues": "none",
        "trackListPositions": false
      }
    },
    

    The View will index all attributes (fields) of the documents in the food collection from now on (with some delay). The attribute values get processed by the default identity Analyzer, which means that they get indexed unaltered.

  7. Click on QUERIES in the main navigation and try the following query:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      RETURN doc
    

    The View is used like a collection and simply iterated over to return all (indexed) documents. You should see the documents stored in food as result.

  8. Now add a search expression. Unlike with regular collections where you would use FILTER, a SEARCH operation is needed to utilize the View index:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      SEARCH doc.name == "avocado"
      RETURN doc
    

    In this basic example, the ArangoSearch expression looks identical to a FILTER expression, but this is not always the case. You can also combine both, with FILTERs after SEARCH, in which case the filter criteria will be applied to the search results as a post-processing step.

Understanding the Analyzer context

ArangoSearch allows you to index the same field with multiple Analyzers. This makes it necessary to select the right one in your query by setting the Analyzer context with the ANALYZER() function.

We did not specify an Analyzer explicitly in above example, but it worked regardless. That is because the identity Analyzer is used by default in both View definitions and AQL queries. The Analyzer chosen in a query needs to match with one of the Analyzers that a field was indexed with as per the View definition - and this happened to be the case. We can rewrite the query to be more explicit about the Analyzer context:

FOR doc IN food_view
  SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "avocado", "identity")
  RETURN doc

ANALYZER(… , "identity") matches the Analyzer defined in the View "analyzers": [ "identity" ]. The latter defines how fields are transformed at index time, whereas the former selects which index to use at query time.

To use a different Analyzer, such as the built-in text_en Analyzer, you would change the View definition to "analyzers": [ "text_en", "identity" ] (or just "analyzers": [ "text_en" ] if you don’t need the identity Analyzer at all) as well as adjust the query to use ANALYZER(… , "text_en").

If a field is not indexed with the Analyzer requested in the query, then you will get an empty result back. Make sure that the fields are indexed correctly and that you set the Analyzer context.

You can test if a field is indexed with particular Analyzer with one of the variants of the EXISTS() function. The prerequisite for this is that you change "storeValues" in the View definition from "none" to "id". You can then run a query as shown below:

RETURN LENGTH(
  FOR doc IN food_view
    SEARCH EXISTS(doc.name, "analyzer", "identity")
    LIMIT 1
    RETURN true) > 0

Basic search expressions

ArangoSearch supports a variety of logical operators and comparison operators to filter Views. A basic one is the equality comparison operator:

doc.name == "avocado"

The inversion (inequality) is also allowed:

doc.name != "avocado"

You can also test against multiple values with the IN operator:

doc.name IN ["avocado", "carrot"]

The same can be expressed with a logical OR for multiple conditions:

doc.name == "avocado" OR doc.name == "carrot"

Similarly, AND can be used to require that multiple conditions must be true:

doc.name == "avocado" AND doc.type == "fruit"

An interesting case is the tomato document with its two array elements as type: ["fruit", "vegetable"]. The View definition defaulted to "trackListPositions": false, which means that the array elements get indexed individually as if the attribute both string values at the same time, matching the following conditions:

doc.type == "fruit" AND doc.type == "vegetable"

The same can be expressed with ALL == and ALL IN. Note that the attribute reference and the search conditions are swapped for this:

["fruit", "vegetable"] ALL == doc.type

To find fruits which are not vegetables at the same time, the latter can be excluded with NOT:

doc.type == "fruit" AND NOT doc.type == "vegetable"

For a complete list of operators supported in ArangoSearch expressions see AQL SEARCH operation.

Searching for tokens from full-text

So far we searched for full matches of name and/or type. Strings could contain more than just a single term however. It could be multiple words, sentences, or paragraphs. For such text, we need a way to search for individual tokens, usually the words that it is comprised of. This is where Text Analyzers come in. A Text Analyzer tokenizes an entire string into individual tokens that are then stored in an inverted index.

There are a few pre-configured text Analyzers, but you can also add your own as needed. For now, let us use the built-in text_en Analyzer for tokenizing English text.

  1. Replace "fields": {}, in the food_view View definition with below code:
      "fields": {
     "name": {
       "analyzers": ["text_en", "identity"]
     }
      },
    
  2. Save the change. After a few seconds, the name attribute will be indexed with the text_en Analyzer in addition to the identity Analyzer.
  3. Run below query that sets text_en as context Analyzer and searches for the word pepper:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "pepper", "text_en")
      RETURN doc.name
    
  4. It matches chili pepper because the Analyzer tokenized it into chili and pepper and the latter matches the search criterion. Compare that to the identity Analyzer:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "pepper", "identity")
      RETURN doc.name
    

    It does not match because chili pepper is indexed as a single token that does not match the search criterion.

  5. Switch back to the text_en Analyzer but with a different search term:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "PéPPêR", "text_en")
      RETURN doc.name
    

    This will not match anything, even though this particular Analyzer converts characters to lowercase and accented characters to their base characters. The problem is that this transformation is applied to the document attribute when it gets indexed, but we haven’t applied it to the search term.

  6. If we apply the same transformation then we get a match:
    FOR doc IN food_view
      SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == TOKENS("PéPPêR", "text_en")[0], "text_en")
      RETURN doc.name
    

    Note that the TOKENS() functions returns an array. We pick the first element with [0], which is the normalized search term "pepper".

Search expressions with ArangoSearch functions

Basic operators are not enough for complex query needs. Additional search functionality is provided via ArangoSearch functions that can be composed with basic operators and other functions to form search expressions.

ArangoSearch AQL functions take either an expression or a reference of an attribute path as first argument.

ANALYZER(<expression>, )
STARTS_WITH(doc.attribute, )

If an expression is expected, it means that search conditions can expressed in AQL syntax. They are typically function calls to ArangoSearch search functions, possibly nested and/or using logical operators for multiple conditions.

ANALYZER(STARTS_WITH(doc.name, "chi") OR STARTS_WITH(doc.name, "tom"), "identity")

The default Analyzer that will be used for searching is "identity". While some ArangoSearch functions accept an Analyzer argument, it is often necessary to wrap search (sub-)expressions with an ANALYZER() call to set the correct Analyzer in the query so that it matches one of the Analyzers with which the field was indexed.

It can be easier and cleaner to use ANALYZER() even if you exclusively use functions that take an Analyzer argument and leave that argument out:

// Analyzer specified in each function call
PHRASE(doc.name, "chili pepper", "text_en") OR PHRASE(doc.name, "tomato", "text_en")

// Analyzer specified using ANALYZER()
ANALYZER(PHRASE(doc.name, "chili pepper") OR PHRASE(doc.name, "tomato"), "text_en")

The PHRASE() function applies the text_en Analyzer to the search terms in both cases. chili pepper gets tokenized into chili and pepper and these tokens are then searched in this order. Searching for pepper chili would not match.

Certain expressions do not require any ArangoSearch functions, such as basic comparisons. However, the Analyzer used for searching will be "identity" unless ANALYZER() is used to set a different one.

// The "identity" Analyzer will be used by default
SEARCH doc.name == "avocado"

// Same as before but being explicit
SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "avocado", "identity")

// Use the "text_en" Analyzer for searching instead
SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.name == "avocado", "text_en")

If an attribute path expressions is needed, then you have to reference a document object emitted by a View like FOR doc IN viewName and then specify which attribute you want to test for as an unquoted string literal. For example doc.attr or doc.deeply.nested.attr but not "doc.attr". You can also use the bracket notation doc["attr"].

FOR doc IN viewName
  SEARCH STARTS_WITH(doc.deeply.nested["attr"], "avoca")
  RETURN doc

Ranking results by relevance

Finding matches is one thing, but especially if there are a lot of results then the most relevant documents should be listed first. ArangoSearch implements scoring functions that can be used to rank documents by relevance. The popular ranking schemes Okapi BM25 and TF-IDF are available.

Here is an example that sorts results from high to low BM25 score and also returns the score:

FOR doc IN food_view
  SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.type == "vegetable", "identity")
  SORT BM25(doc) DESC
  RETURN { name: doc.name, type: doc.type, score: BM25(doc) }

As you can see, the variable emitted by the View in the FOR … IN loop is passed to the BM25() function.

name type score
tomato [“fruit”,”vegetable”] 0.43373921513557434
carrot vegetable 0.38845786452293396
chili pepper vegetable 0.38845786452293396

The TFIDF() function works the same:

FOR doc IN food_view
  SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.type == "vegetable", "identity")
  SORT TFIDF(doc) DESC
  RETURN { name: doc.name, type: doc.type, score: TFIDF(doc) }

It returns different scores:

name type score
tomato [“fruit”,”vegetable”] 1.2231435775756836
carrot vegetable 1.2231435775756836
chili pepper vegetable 1.2231435775756836

The scores will change whenever you insert, modify or remove documents, because the ranking takes factors like how often a term occurs overall and within a single document into account. For example, if you insert a hundred more fruit documents (INSERT { type: "fruit" } INTO food) then the TF-IDF score for vegetables will become 1.4054651260375977.

You can adjust the ranking in two different ways:

  • Boost sub-expressions to favor a condition over another with the BOOST() function
  • Calculate a custom score with an expression, optionally taking BM25() and TFIDF() into account Have a look at the Ranking Examples for that.

Indexing complex JSON documents

Working with nested fields

As with regular indexes, there is no limitation to top-level attributes. Any document attribute at any depth can be indexed. However, with ArangoSearch it is possible to index all documents attributes or particular attributes including their nested attributes with having to modifying the View definition as new (nested) attribute are added.

We already used this feature to index all document attributes above when we modified the View definition to this:

{
  "links": {
    "food": {
      "includeAllFields": true
    }
  },
  ...
}

No matter what attributes you add to your documents, they will automatically get indexed. To do this for certain attribute paths only, you can specify it like shown below and include a list of Analyzers to process the values with:

{
  "links": {
    "food": {
      "fields": {
        "value": {
          "includeAllFields": true,
          "analyzers": ["identity", "text_en"]
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

This will index the attribute value and its nested attributes. Consider the following example document:

{
  "value": {
    "nested": {
      "deep": "apple pie"
    }
  }
}

The View will automatically index apple pie, processed with the identity and text_en Analyzers, and it can then be queried like this:

FOR doc IN food_view
  SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.value.nested.deep == "apple pie", "identity")
  RETURN doc
FOR doc IN food_view
  SEARCH ANALYZER(doc.value.nested.deep IN TOKENS("pie", "text_en"), "text_en")
  RETURN doc

Indexing and querying arrays

The elements of arrays are indexed individually by default, as if the source attribute had each element as value at the same time (like a disjunctive superposition of their values). This is controlled by the View setting trackListPositions that defaults to false.

Consider the following document:

{
  "value": {
    "nested": {
      "deep": [ 1, 2, 3 ]
    }
  }
}

A View that is configured to index the field value including sub-fields will index the individual numbers under the path value.nested.deep, which you can query for like:

FOR doc IN viewName
  SEARCH doc.value.nested.deep == 2
  RETURN doc

This is different to FILTER operations, where you would use an array comparison operator to find an element in the array:

FOR doc IN collection
  FILTER doc.value.nested.deep ANY == 2
  RETURN doc

You can set trackListPositions to true if you want to query for a value at a specific array index:

SEARCH doc.value.nested.deep[1] == 2

With trackListPositions enabled there will be no match for the document anymore if the specification of an array index is left out in the expression:

SEARCH doc.value.nested.deep == 2

Conversely, there will be no match if an array index is specified but trackListPositions is disabled.

String tokens are also indexed individually, but only some Analyzer types return multiple tokens. If the Analyzer does, then comparison tests are done per token/word. For example, given the field text is analyzed with "text_en" and contains the string "a quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", the following expression will be true:

ANALYZER(doc.text == 'fox', "text_en")

Note that the "text_en" Analyzer stems the words, so this is also true:

ANALYZER(doc.text == 'jump', "text_en")

So a comparison will actually test if a word is contained in the text. With trackListPositions: false, this means for arrays if the word is contained in any element of the array. For example, given:

{"text": [ "a quick", "brown fox", "jumps over the", "lazy dog" ] }

… the following will be true:

ANALYZER(doc.text == 'jump', "text_en")

With trackListPositions: true you would need to specify the index of the array element "jumps over the" to be true:

ANALYZER(doc.text[2] == 'jump', "text_en")

Arrays of strings are handled similarly. Each array element is treated like a token (or possibly multiple tokens if a tokenizing Analyzer is used and therefore applied to each element).

Dealing with eventual consistency

Regular indexes are immediately consistent. If you have a collection with a persistent index on an attribute text and update the value of the attribute for instance, then this modification is reflected in the index immediately. ArangoSearch View indexes on the other hand are eventual consistent. Document changes are not reflected instantly, but only near-realtime. This mainly has performance reasons.

If you run a search query shortly after a CRUD operation, then the results may be slightly stale, e.g. not include a newly inserted document:

db._query(`INSERT { text: "cheese cake" } INTO collection`);
db._query(`FOR doc IN viewName SEARCH doc.text == "cheese cake" RETURN doc`);

Re-running the search query a bit later will include the new document, however.

There is an internal option to wait for the View to update and thus include changes just made to documents:

db._query(`INSERT { text: "pop tart" } INTO collection`);
db._query(`FOR doc IN viewName SEARCH doc.text == "pop tart" OPTIONS { waitForSync: true } RETURN doc`);

SEARCH … OPTIONS { waitForSync: true } is intended to be used in unit tests to block search queries until the View caught up with the underlying collections. It is designed to make this use case easier. It should not be used for other purposes and especially not in production, as it can stall queries.

Do not useSEARCH … OPTIONS { waitForSync: true } in transactions. View index changes cannot be rolled back if transactions get aborted. It will lead to permanent inconsistencies the linked collections and the View.

How to go from here

To learn more, check out the different search examples:

  • Exact value matching: Search for values as stored in documents (full strings, numbers, booleans).
  • Range queries: Match values that are above, below or between a minimum and a maximum value. This is primarily for numeric values.
  • Prefix matching: Search for strings that start with certain strings. A common use case for this is to implement auto-complete kind of functionality.
  • Case-sensitivity and diacritics: Strings can be normalized so that it does not matter whether characters are upper or lower case, and character accents can be ignored for a better search experience. This can be combined with other types of search.
  • Wildcard search: Search for partial matches in strings (ends with, contains and more).
  • Full-text token search: Full-text can be tokenized into words that can then be searched individually, regardless of their original order, also in combination with prefix search. Array values are also indexed as separate tokens.
  • Phrase and proximity search: Search tokenized full-text with the tokens in a certain order, such as partial or full sentences, optionally with wildcard tokens for a proximity search.
  • Faceted search: Combine aggregation with search queries to retrieve how often values occur overall.
  • Fuzzy search: Match strings even if they are not exactly the same as the search terms. By allowing some fuzziness you can compensate for typos and match similar tokens that could be relevant too.
  • Geospatial search: You can use ArangoSearch for geographic search queries to find nearby locations, places within a certain area and more. It can be combined with other types of search queries unlike with the regular geo index.

For relevance and performance tuning, as well as the reference documentation, see:

  • Ranking: Sort search results by relevance, fine-tune the importance of certain search conditions, and calculate a custom relevance score.
  • Performance: Give the View index a primary sort order to benefit common search queries that you will run and store often used attributes directly in the View index for fast access.
  • Views Reference: You can find all View properties and options in this reference documentation.

If you are interested in more technical details, have a look at: