2018-03-20T18:20:43Z

The Flask Mega-Tutorial Part XVI: Full-Text Search

This is the sixteenth installment of the Flask Mega-Tutorial series, in which I'm going to add a full-text search capability to Microblog.

For your reference, below is a list of the articles in this series.

Note 1: If you are looking for the legacy version of this tutorial, it's here.

Note 2: If you would like to support my work on this blog, or just don't have patience to wait for weekly articles, I am offering the complete version of this tutorial packaged as an ebook or a set of videos. For more information, visit courses.miguelgrinberg.com.

The goal of this chapter is to implement a search feature for Microblog, so that users can find interesting posts using natural language. For many types of web sites, it is possible to just let Google, Bing, etc. index all the content and provide search results through their search APIs. This works well for sites that have mostly static pages, like a forum. But in my application the basic unit of content is a user post, which is a small portion of the entire web page. The type of search results that I want are for these individual blog posts and not entire pages. For example, if I search for the word "dog" I want to see blog posts from any users that include that word. Obviously a page that shows all blog posts that have the word "dog" (or any other possible search term) does not really exist as a page that the big search engines can find and index, so clearly I have no choice other than to roll my own search feature.

The GitHub links for this chapter are: Browse, Zip, Diff.

Introduction to Full-Text Search Engines

Support for full-text search is not standardized like relational databases are. There are several open-source full-text engines: Elasticsearch, Apache Solr, Whoosh, Xapian, Sphinx, etc. As if this isn't enough choice, there are several databases that also provide searching capabilities that are comparable to dedicated search engines like the ones I enumerated above. SQLite, MySQL and PostgreSQL all offer some support for searching text, and NoSQL databases such as MongoDB and CouchDB do too.

If you are wondering which of these can work within a Flask application, the answer is all of them! That is one of the strengths of Flask, it does its job while not being opinionated. So what's the best choice?

From the list of dedicated search engines, Elasticsearch is one that stands out to me as being fairly popular, in part due to its popularity as the "E" in the ELK stack for indexing logs, along with Logstash and Kibana. Using the searching capabilities of one of the relational databases could also be a good choice, but given the fact that SQLAlchemy does not support this functionality, I would have to handle the searching with raw SQL statements, or else find a package that provides high-level access to text searches while being able to coexist with SQLAlchemy.

Based on the above analysis, I'm going to use Elasticsearch, but I'm going to implement all the text indexing and searching functions in a way that is very easy to switch to another engine. That will allow you to replace my implementation with an alternative one based on a different engine just by rewriting a few functions in a single module.

Installing Elasticsearch

There are several ways to install Elasticsearch, including one-click installers, zip file with the binaries that you need to install yourself, and even a Docker image. The documentation has an Installation page with detailed information on all these options. If you are using Linux, you will likely have a package available for your distribution. If you are using a Mac and have Homebrew installed, then you can simply run brew install elasticsearch.

Once you install Elasticsearch on your computer, you can verify that it is running by typing http://localhost:9200 in your browser's address bar, which should return some basic information about the service in JSON format.

Since I will be managing Elasticsearch from Python, I will also be using the Python client library:

(venv) $ pip install elasticsearch

You may also want to update your requirements.txt file:

(venv) $ pip freeze > requirements.txt

Elasticsearch Tutorial

I'm going to start by showing you the basics of working with Elasticsearch from a Python shell. This will help you familiarize with this service, so that you can understand the implementation that I will discuss later.

To create a connection to Elasticsearch, create an instance of class Elasticsearch, passing a connection URL as an argument:

>>> from elasticsearch import Elasticsearch
>>> es = Elasticsearch('http://localhost:9200')

Data in Elasticsearch is written to indexes. Unlike a relational database, the data is just a JSON object. The following example writes an object with a field called text to an index called my_index:

>>> es.index(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index', id=1, body={'text': 'this is a test'})

An index can store documents of different types if desired, and in that case the doc_type argument can be set to different values according to those different formats. I'm going to be storing all documents with the same format, so I'm setting the document type to the index name.

For each document stored, Elasticsearch takes a unique id and the JSON object with the data.

Let's store a second document on this index:

>>> es.index(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index', id=2, body={'text': 'a second test'})

And now that there are two documents in this index, I can issue a free-form search. In this example, I'm going to search for this test:

>>> es.search(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index',
... body={'query': {'match': {'text': 'this test'}}})

The response from the es.search() call is a Python dictionary with the search results:

{
    'took': 1,
    'timed_out': False,
    '_shards': {'total': 5, 'successful': 5, 'skipped': 0, 'failed': 0},
    'hits': {
        'total': 2, 
        'max_score': 0.5753642, 
        'hits': [
            {
                '_index': 'my_index',
                '_type': 'my_index',
                '_id': '1',
                '_score': 0.5753642,
                '_source': {'text': 'this is a test'}
            },
            {
                '_index': 'my_index',
                '_type': 'my_index',
                '_id': '2',
                '_score': 0.25316024,
                '_source': {'text': 'a second test'}
            }
        ]
    }
}

Here you can see that the search returned the two documents, each with an assigned score. The document with the highest score contains the two words I searched for, and the other document contains only one. You can see that even the best result does not have a great score, because the words do not exactly match the text.

Now this is the result if I search for the word second:

>>> es.search(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index',
... body={'query': {'match': {'text': 'second'}}})
{
    'took': 1,
    'timed_out': False,
    '_shards': {'total': 5, 'successful': 5, 'skipped': 0, 'failed': 0},
    'hits': {
        'total': 1,
        'max_score': 0.25316024,
        'hits': [
            {
                '_index': 'my_index',
                '_type': 'my_index',
                '_id': '2',
                '_score': 0.25316024,
                '_source': {'text': 'a second test'}
            }
        ]
    }
}

I still get a fairly low score because my search does not match the text in this document, but since only one of the two documents contains the word "second", the other document does not show up at all.

The Elasticsearch query object has more options, all well documented, and includes options such as pagination and sorting, just like relational databases.

Feel free to add more entries to this index and try different searches. When you are done experimenting, you can delete the index with the following command:

>>> es.indices.delete('my_index')

Elasticsearch Configuration

Integrating Elasticsearch into the application is a great example of the power of Flask. This is a service and Python package that does not have anything to do with Flask, yet, I'm going to get a pretty good level of integration, starting from the configuration, which I'm going to write in the app.config dictionary from Flask:

config.py: Elasticsearch configuration.

class Config(object):
    # ...
    ELASTICSEARCH_URL = os.environ.get('ELASTICSEARCH_URL')

Like with many other configuration entries, the connection URL for Elasticsearch is going to be sourced from an environment variable. If the variable is not defined, I'm going to let the setting be set to None, and I'll use that as a signal to disable Elasticsearch. This is mainly for convenience, so that you are not forced to always have the Elasticsearch service up and running when you work on the application, and in particular when you run unit tests. So to make sure the service is used, I need to define the ELASTICSEARCH_URL environment variable, either directly in the terminal or by adding it to the .env file as follows:

ELASTICSEARCH_URL=http://localhost:9200

Elasticsearch presents the challenge that it isn't wrapped by a Flask extension. I cannot create the Elasticsearch instance in the global scope like I did in the examples above because to initialize it I need access to app.config, which only becomes available after the create_app() function is invoked. So I decided to add a elasticsearch attribute to the app instance in the application factory function:

app/__init__.py: Elasticsearch instance.

# ...
from elasticsearch import Elasticsearch

# ...

def create_app(config_class=Config):
    app = Flask(__name__)
    app.config.from_object(config_class)

    # ...
    app.elasticsearch = Elasticsearch([app.config['ELASTICSEARCH_URL']]) \
        if app.config['ELASTICSEARCH_URL'] else None

    # ...

Adding a new attribute to the app instance may seem a little strange, but Python objects are not strict in their structure, new attributes can be added to them at any time. An alternative that you may also consider is to create a subclass of Flask (maybe call it Microblog), with the elasticsearch attribute defined in its __init__() function.

Note how I use a conditional expression to make the Elasticsearch instance None when a URL for the Elasticsearch service wasn't defined in the environment.

A Full-Text Search Abstraction

As I said in the chapter's introduction, I want to make it easy to switch from Elasticsearch to other search engines, and I also don't want to code this feature specifically for searching blog posts, I prefer to design a solution that in the future I can easily extend to other models if I need to. For all these reasons, I decided to create an abstraction for the search functionality. The idea is to design the feature in generic terms, so I will not be assuming that the Post model is the only one that needs to be indexed, and I will also not be assuming that Elasticsearch is the index engine of choice. But if I can't make any assumptions about anything, how can I get this work done?

The first thing that I need, is to somehow find a generic way to indicate which model and which field or fields in it are to be indexed. I'm going to say that any model that needs indexing needs to define a __searchable__ class attribute that lists the fields that need to be included in the index. For the Post model, these are the changes:

app/models.py: Add a \_\_searchable\_\_ attribute to the Post model.

class Post(db.Model):
    __searchable__ = ['body']
    # ...

So here I'm saying that this model needs to have its body field indexed. But just to make sure this is perfectly clear, this __searchable__ attribute that I added is just a variable, it does not have any behavior associated with it. It will just help me write my indexing functions in a generic way.

I'm going to write all the code that interacts with the Elasticsearch index in a app/search.py module. The idea is to keep all the Elasticsearch code in this module. The rest of the application will use the functions in this new module to access the index and will not have direct access to Elasticsearch. This is important, because if one day I decided I don't like Elasticsearch anymore and want to switch to a different engine, all I need to do is rewrite the functions in this module, and the application will continue to work as before.

For this application, I decided that I need three supporting functions related to text indexing: I need to add entries to a full-text index, I need to remove entries from the index (assuming one day I will support deleting blog posts), and I need to execute a search query. Here is the app/search.py module that implements these three functions for Elasticsearch, using the functionality I showed you above from the Python console:

app/search.py: Search functions.

from flask import current_app

def add_to_index(index, model):
    if not current_app.elasticsearch:
        return
    payload = {}
    for field in model.__searchable__:
        payload[field] = getattr(model, field)
    current_app.elasticsearch.index(index=index, doc_type=index, id=model.id,
                                    body=payload)

def remove_from_index(index, model):
    if not current_app.elasticsearch:
        return
    current_app.elasticsearch.delete(index=index, doc_type=index, id=model.id)

def query_index(index, query, page, per_page):
    if not current_app.elasticsearch:
        return [], 0
    search = current_app.elasticsearch.search(
        index=index, doc_type=index,
        body={'query': {'multi_match': {'query': query, 'fields': ['*']}},
              'from': (page - 1) * per_page, 'size': per_page})
    ids = [int(hit['_id']) for hit in search['hits']['hits']]
    return ids, search['hits']['total']

These functions all start by checking if app.elasticsearch is None, and in that case return without doing anything. This is so that when the Elasticsearch server isn't configured, the application continues to run without the search capability and without giving any errors. This is just as a matter of convenience during development or when running unit tests.

The functions accept the index name as an argument. In all the calls I'm passing down to Elasticsearch, I'm using this name as the index name and also as the document type, as I did in the Python console examples.

The functions that add and remove entries from the index take the SQLAlchemy model as a second argument. The add_to_index() function uses the __searchable__ class variable I added to the model to build the document that is inserted into the index. If you recall, Elasticsearch documents also needed a unique identifier. For that I'm using the id field of the SQLAlchemy model, which is also conveniently unique. Using the same id value for SQLAlchemy and Elasticsearch is very useful when running the searches, as it allows me to link entries in the two databases. Something I did not mention above is that if you attempt to add an entry with an existing id, then Elasticsearch replaces the old entry with the new one, so add_to_index() can be used for new objects as well as for modified ones.

I did not show you the es.delete() function that I'm using in remove_from_index() before. This function deletes the document stored under the given id. Here is a good example of the convenience of using the same id to link entries in both databases.

The query_index() function takes the index name and a text to search for, along with pagination controls, so that search results can be paginated like Flask-SQLAlchemy results are. You have already seen an example usage of the es.search() function from the Python console. The call I'm issuing here is fairly similar, but instead of using a match query type, I decided to use multi_match, which can search across multiple fields. By passing a field name of *, I'm telling Elasticsearch to look in all the fields, so basically I'm searching the entire index. This is useful to make this function generic, since different models can have different field names in the index.

The body argument to es.search() includes pagination arguments in addition to the query itself. The from and size arguments control what subset of the entire result set needs to be returned. Elasticsearch does not provide a nice Pagination object like the one from Flask-SQLAlchemy, so I have to do the pagination math to calculate the from value.

The return statement in the query_index() function is somewhat complex. It returns two values: the first is a list of id elements for the search results, and the second is the total number of results. Both are obtained from the Python dictionary returned by the es.search() function. If you are not familiar with the expression that I'm using to obtain the list of IDs, this is called a list comprehension, and is a fantastic feature of the Python language that allows you to transform lists from one format to another. In this case I'm using the list comprehension to extract the id values from the much larger list of results provided by Elasticsearch.

Is this too confusing? Maybe a demonstration of these functions from the Python console can help you understand them a bit more. In the following session, I manually add all the posts from the database to the Elasticsearch index. In my test database, I had a few posts that had the numbers "one", "two", "three", "four" and "five" in them, so I used that as a search query. You may need to adapt your query to match the contents of your database:

>>> from app.search import add_to_index, remove_from_index, query_index
>>> for post in Post.query.all():
...     add_to_index('posts', post)
>>> query_index('posts', 'one two three four five', 1, 100)
([15, 13, 12, 4, 11, 8, 14], 7)
>>> query_index('posts', 'one two three four five', 1, 3)
([15, 13, 12], 7)
>>> query_index('posts', 'one two three four five', 2, 3)
([4, 11, 8], 7)
>>> query_index('posts', 'one two three four five', 3, 3)
([14], 7)

The query that I issued returned seven results. When I asked for page 1 with 100 items per page I get all seven, but then the next three examples shows how I can paginate the results in a way that is very similar to what I did for Flask-SQLAlchemy, with the exception that the results come as a list of IDs instead of SQLAlchemy objects.

If you want to keep things clean, delete the posts index after you are doing experimenting with it:

>>> app.elasticsearch.indices.delete('posts')

Integrating Searches with SQLAlchemy

The solution that I showed you in the previous section is decent, but it still has a couple of problems. The most obvious problem is that results come as a list of numeric IDs. This is highly inconvenient, I need SQLAlchemy models so that I can pass them down to templates for rendering, and I need a way to replace that list of numbers with the corresponding models from the database. The second problem is that this solution requires the application to explicitly issue indexing calls as posts are added or removed, which is not terrible, but less than ideal, since a bug that causes a missed indexing call when making a change on the SQLAlchemy side is not going to be easily detected, the two databases will get out of sync more and more each time the bug occurs and you will probably not notice for a while. A better solution would be for these calls to be triggered automatically as changes are made on the SQLAlchemy database.

The problem of replacing the IDs with objects can be addressed by creating a SQLAlchemy query that reads those objects from the database. This sounds easy in practice, but doing it efficiently with a single query is actually a bit tricky to implement.

For the problem of triggering the indexing changes automatically, I decided to drive updates to the Elasticsearch index from SQLAlchemy events. SQLAlchemy provides a large list of events that applications can be notified about. For example, each time a session is committed, I can have a function in the application invoked by SQLAlchemy, and in that function I can apply the same updates that were made on the SQLAlchemy session to the Elasticsearch index.

To implement the solutions to these two problems I'm going to write a mixin class. Remember mixin classes? In Chapter 5, I added the UserMixin class from Flask-Login to the User model, to give it some features that were required by Flask-Login. For the search support I'm going to define my own SearchableMixin class, that when attached to a model, will give it the ability to automatically manage an associated full-text index. The mixin class will act as a "glue" layer between the SQLAlchemy and Elasticsearch worlds, providing solutions to the two problems I stated above.

Let me show you the implementation, then I'll go over some interesting details. Note that this makes use of several advanced techniques, so you will need to study this code carefully to fully understand it.

app/models.py: SearchableMixin class.

from app.search import add_to_index, remove_from_index, query_index

class SearchableMixin(object):
    @classmethod
    def search(cls, expression, page, per_page):
        ids, total = query_index(cls.__tablename__, expression, page, per_page)
        if total == 0:
            return cls.query.filter_by(id=0), 0
        when = []
        for i in range(len(ids)):
            when.append((ids[i], i))
        return cls.query.filter(cls.id.in_(ids)).order_by(
            db.case(when, value=cls.id)), total

    @classmethod
    def before_commit(cls, session):
        session._changes = {
            'add': list(session.new),
            'update': list(session.dirty),
            'delete': list(session.deleted)
        }

    @classmethod
    def after_commit(cls, session):
        for obj in session._changes['add']:
            if isinstance(obj, SearchableMixin):
                add_to_index(obj.__tablename__, obj)
        for obj in session._changes['update']:
            if isinstance(obj, SearchableMixin):
                add_to_index(obj.__tablename__, obj)
        for obj in session._changes['delete']:
            if isinstance(obj, SearchableMixin):
                remove_from_index(obj.__tablename__, obj)
        session._changes = None

    @classmethod
    def reindex(cls):
        for obj in cls.query:
            add_to_index(cls.__tablename__, obj)

db.event.listen(db.session, 'before_commit', SearchableMixin.before_commit)
db.event.listen(db.session, 'after_commit', SearchableMixin.after_commit)

There are four functions in this mixin class, all class methods. Just as a refresher, a class method is a special method that is associated with the class and not a particular instance. Note how I renamed the self argument used in regular instance methods to cls, to make it clear that this method receives a class and not an instance as its first argument. Once attached to the Post model for example, the search() method above would be invoked as Post.search(), without having to have an actual instance of class Post.

The search() class method wraps the query_index() function from app/search.py to replace the list of object IDs with actual objects. You can see that the first thing this function does is call query_index(), passing cls.__tablename__ as the index name. This is going to be a convention, all indexes will be named with the name Flask-SQLAlchemy assigned to the relational table. The function returns the list of result IDs, and the total number of results. The SQLAlchemy query that retrieves the list of objects by their IDs is based on a CASE statement from the SQL language, which needs to be used to ensure that the results from the database come in the same order as the IDs are given. This is important because the Elasticsearch query returns results sorted from more to less relevant. If you want to learn more about the way this query works, you can consult the accepted answer to this StackOverflow question. The search() function returns the query that replaces the list of IDs, and also passes through the total number of search results as a second return value.

The before_commit() and after_commit() methods are going to respond to two events from SQLAlchemy, which are triggered before and after a commit takes place respectively. The before handler is useful because the session hasn't been committed yet, so I can look at it and figure out what objects are going to be added, modified and deleted, available as session.new, session.dirty and session.deleted respectively. These objects are not going to be available anymore after the session is committed, so I need to save them before the commit takes place. I'm using a session._changes dictionary to write these objects in a place that is going to survive the session commit, because as soon as the session is committed I will be using them to update the Elasticsearch index.

When the after_commit() handler is invoked, the session has been successfully committed, so this is the proper time to make changes on the Elasticsearch side. The session object has the _changes variable that I added in before_commit(), so now I can iterate over the added, modified and deleted objects, and make the corresponding calls to the indexing functions in app/search.py for the objects that have the SearchableMixin class.

The reindex() class method is a simple helper method that you can use to refresh an index with all the data from the relational side. You saw me do something similar from the Python shell session above to do an initial load of all the posts into a test index. With this method in place, I can issue Post.reindex() to add all the posts in the database to the search index.

After the class definition I made two calls to SQLALchemy's function db.event.listen(). Note that these calls are not inside the class, but after it. The purpose of these two statements is to set up the event handlers that will make SQLAlchemy call the before_commit() and after_commit() methods before and after each commit respectively.

To incorporate the SearchableMixin class into the Post model I have to add it as a subclass, and I also need to hook up the before and after commit events:

app/models.py: Adding the SearchableMixin class to the Post model.

class Post(SearchableMixin, db.Model):
    # ...

Now the Post model is automatically maintaining a full-text search index for posts. I can use the reindex() method to initialize the index from all the posts currently in the database:

>>> Post.reindex()

And I can search posts working with SQLAlchemy models by running Post.search(). In the following example, I ask for the first page of five elements for my query:

>>> query, total = Post.search('one two three four five', 1, 5)
>>> total
7
>>> query.all()
[<Post five>, <Post two>, <Post one>, <Post one more>, <Post one>]

Search Form

This was very intense. The work that I've done above to keep things generic touches on several advanced topics, so it may take you time to fully understand it. But now I have a complete system to work with natural language searches for blog posts. What I need to do now is integrate all this functionality with the application.

A fairly standard approach for web-based searches is to have the search term as a q argument in the query string of the URL. For example, if you wanted to search for Python on Google, and you want to save a couple of seconds, you can just type the following URL in your browser's address bar to go directly to the results:

https://www.google.com/search?q=python

Allowing searches to be completely encapsulated in a URL is nice, because these can be shared with other people, who just by clicking on the link have access to the search results.

This introduces a change in the way I showed you to handle web forms in the past. I have used POST requests to submit form data for all the forms the application has so far, but to implement searches as above, the form submission will have to go as a GET request, which is the request method that is used when you type a URL in your browser or click a link. Another interesting difference is that the search form is going to be in the navigation bar, so it needs to be present in all pages of the application.

Here is the search form class, with just the q text field:

app/main/forms.py: Search form.

from flask import request

class SearchForm(FlaskForm):
    q = StringField(_l('Search'), validators=[DataRequired()])

    def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
        if 'formdata' not in kwargs:
            kwargs['formdata'] = request.args
        if 'csrf_enabled' not in kwargs:
            kwargs['csrf_enabled'] = False
        super(SearchForm, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)

The q field does not require any explanation, as it is similar to other text fields I've used in the past. For this form, I decided not to have a submit button. For a form that has a text field, the browser will submit the form when you press Enter with the focus on the field, so a button is not needed. I have also added a __init__ constructor function, which provides values for the formdata and csrf_enabled arguments if they are not provided by the caller. The formdata argument determines from where Flask-WTF gets form submissions. The default is to use request.form, which is where Flask puts form values that are submitted via POST request. Forms that are submitted via GET request get have the field values in the query string, so I need to point Flask-WTF at request.args, which is where Flask writes the query string arguments. And as you remember, forms have CSRF protection added by default, with the inclusion of a CSRF token that is added to the form via the form.hidden_tag() construct in templates. For clickable search links to work, CSRF needs to be disabled, so I'm setting csrf_enabled to False so that Flask-WTF knows that it needs to bypass CSRF validation for this form.

Since I'm going to need to have this form visible in all pages, I need to create an instance of the SearchForm class regardless of the page the user is viewing. The only requirement is that the user is logged in, because for anonymous users I am not currently showing any content. Instead of creating a form object in every route, and then passing the form to all the templates, I'm going to show you a very useful trick that eliminates duplication of code when you need to implement a feature across the entire application. I already used a before_request handler before, back in Chapter 6, to record the time of last visit for each user. What I'm going to do is create my search form in that same function, but with a twist:

app/main/routes.py: Instantiate the search form in the before\_request handler.

from flask import g
from app.main.forms import SearchForm

@bp.before_app_request
def before_request():
    if current_user.is_authenticated:
        current_user.last_seen = datetime.utcnow()
        db.session.commit()
        g.search_form = SearchForm()
    g.locale = str(get_locale())

Here I create an instance of the search form class when I have an authenticated user. But of course, I need this form object to persist until it can be rendered at the end of the request, so I need to store it somewhere. That somewhere is going to be the g container, provided by Flask. This g variable provided by Flask is a place where the application can store data that needs to persist through the life of a request. Here I'm storing the form in g.search_form, so then when the before request handler ends and Flask invokes the view function that handles the requested URL, the g object is going to be the same, and will still have the form attached to it. It's important to note that this g variable is specific to each request and each client, so even if your web server is handling multiple requests at a time for different clients, you can still rely on g to work as private storage for each request, independently of what goes on in other requests that are handled concurrently.

The next step is to render the form to the page. I said above that I wanted this form in all pages, so what makes more sense is to render it as part of the navigation bar. This is, in fact, simple, because templates can also see the data stored in the g variable, so I don't need to worry about adding the form as an explicit template argument in all the render_template() calls in the application. Here is how I can render the form in the base template:

app/templates/base.html: Render the search form in the navigation bar.

            ...
            <div class="collapse navbar-collapse" id="bs-example-navbar-collapse-1">
                <ul class="nav navbar-nav">
                    ... home and explore links ...
                </ul>
                {% if g.search_form %}
                <form class="navbar-form navbar-left" method="get"
                        action="{{ url_for('main.search') }}">
                    <div class="form-group">
                        {{ g.search_form.q(size=20, class='form-control',
                            placeholder=g.search_form.q.label.text) }}
                    </div>
                </form>
                {% endif %}
                ...

The form is rendered only if g.search_form is defined. This check is necessary because some pages, such as error pages, may not have it defined. This form is slightly different than the ones I did previously. I'm setting its method attribute to get, because I want the form data to be submitted on the query string with a GET request. Also, the other forms I created had the action attribute empty, because they were submitted to the same page that rendered the form. This form is special because it appears in all pages, so I need to tell it explicitly where it needs to be submitted, which is a new route that is specifically dedicated to handling searches.

Search View Function

The last bit of functionality to complete the search feature is the view function that receives the search form submission. This view function is going to be attached to the /search route, so that you can send a search request with a http://localhost:5000/search?q=search-words, just like Google.

app/main/routes.py: Search view function.

@bp.route('/search')
@login_required
def search():
    if not g.search_form.validate():
        return redirect(url_for('main.explore'))
    page = request.args.get('page', 1, type=int)
    posts, total = Post.search(g.search_form.q.data, page,
                               current_app.config['POSTS_PER_PAGE'])
    next_url = url_for('main.search', q=g.search_form.q.data, page=page + 1) \
        if total > page * current_app.config['POSTS_PER_PAGE'] else None
    prev_url = url_for('main.search', q=g.search_form.q.data, page=page - 1) \
        if page > 1 else None
    return render_template('search.html', title=_('Search'), posts=posts,
                           next_url=next_url, prev_url=prev_url)

You have seen that in the other forms I used the form.validate_on_submit() method to check if the form submission was valid. Unfortunately that method only works for forms submitted via POST request, so for this form I need to use form.validate() which just validates field values, without checking how the data was submitted. If the validation fails, it is because the user submitted an empty search form, so in that case I just redirect to the explore page, which shows all blog posts.

The Post.search() method from my SearchableMixin class is used to obtain the list of search results. The pagination is handled in a very similar way to that of the index and explore pages, but generating the next and previous links is a little bit trickier without the help of the Pagination object from Flask-SQLAlchemy. This is where the total number of results passed as a second return value from Post.search() is useful.

Once the page of search results and pagination links are calculated, all that is left is to render a template with all this data. I could have figured out a way to reuse the index.html template to display search results, but given that there are a few differences I decided to create a dedicated search.html template that is dedicated to show search results, taking advantage of the _post.html sub-template to render the search results:

app/templates/search.html: Search results template.

{% extends "base.html" %}

{% block app_content %}
    <h1>{{ _('Search Results') }}</h1>
    {% for post in posts %}
        {% include '_post.html' %}
    {% endfor %}
    <nav aria-label="...">
        <ul class="pager">
            <li class="previous{% if not prev_url %} disabled{% endif %}">
                <a href="{{ prev_url or '#' }}">
                    <span aria-hidden="true">&larr;</span>
                    {{ _('Previous results') }}
                </a>
            </li>
            <li class="next{% if not next_url %} disabled{% endif %}">
                <a href="{{ next_url or '#' }}">
                    {{ _('Next results') }}
                    <span aria-hidden="true">&rarr;</span>
                </a>
            </li>
        </ul>
    </nav>
{% endblock %}

If the rendering logic for the previous and next links gets a bit confusing it might help to review the Bootstrap documentation for the pagination component.

Search Results

What do you think? This was an intense chapter, where I presented some fairly advanced techniques. Some of the concepts in this chapter may take some time to sink in. The most important take away from this chapter is that if you want to use a different search engine than Elasticsearch, all you need to do is re-implement the three functions in app/search.py. The other important benefit of going through this effort is that in the future, if I need to add search support for a different database model, I can simply do so by adding the SearchableMixin class to it, the __searchable__ attribute with the list of fields to index and the SQLAlchemy event handler connections. I think it was well worth the effort, because from now on, it is going to be easy to deal with full-text indexes.

93 comments

  • #1 damien200 said 2018-03-20T20:42:57Z

    Hi, thank you for your great work. I have just a question. I made a website and for the search function, I just need to find blog posts with a keyword in it. Is it good to use directly SQLAlchemy with filter or is it better to use a search engine ? Example : current_user.posts.filter(Post.title.like("%" + kw + "%"))

  • #2 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-20T20:55:59Z

    @damien200: If the database that you are using gives you the correct results for keyword searches then I don't see why that would be wrong. What you need to watch out is performance, because the searches that use the LIKE operator aren't super efficient. A dedicated full-text search engine creates an index that is optimized to search keywords.

  • #3 Serhiy said 2018-03-21T00:07:04Z

    Hi, Miguel. Your example of using elastic search and python doesn't work. After I try to enter the second command (with id=2): >>> es.index(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index', id=2, body={'text': 'a second test'}) I get an error: elasticsearch.exceptions.AuthorizationException: TransportError(403, 'cluster_block_exception', 'blocked by: [FORBIDDEN/12/index read-only / allow delete (api)];') And it is for EVERY new index - it allows to enter a new index only once

  • #4 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-21T06:19:29Z

    @Serhiy: Your elasticsearch is in read-only mode. This can happens if you are low on disk space, for example, not sure if there are other conditions that also trigger read-only mode. I suggest you check the elasticsearch logs if you have them, or repeat the test and watch the logs to see if you can figure out why the database was made read-only.

  • #5 Serhiy said 2018-03-21T10:37:05Z

    Hi, Miguel. Thank you. It's exactly the low disk space that was the reason of the read-only mode. It looks like Elasticsearch consider 50 gb as a low disk space (maybe it calculates percent of free space/full space)

  • #6 Yasir said 2018-03-22T12:11:47Z

    Hi, Miguel. After using your example of elasticsearch. >>> es.index(index='my_index', doc_type='my_index', id=1, body={'text': 'this is a test'}) I get an error: Traceback (most recent call last): File "e:\python\microblog\venv\lib\site-packages\urllib3\connection.py", line 141, in _new_conn (self.host, self.port), self.timeout, **extra_kw) File "e:\python\microblog\venv\lib\site-packages\urllib3\util\connection.py", line 83, in create_connection raise err File "e:\python\microblog\venv\lib\site-packages\urllib3\util\connection.py", line 73, in create_connection sock.connect(sa) ConnectionRefusedError: [WinError 10061] No connection could be made because the target machine actively refused it I'm using windows 10 64. I've tried the solution from https://stackoverflow.com/questions/31677563/connection-refused-error-on-elastic-search/41321077 But, I don't know how to set network.host: 0.0.0.0. Hope you can help me. Thank you

  • #7 damien200 said 2018-03-22T17:24:11Z

    Hi, it's me again ;) If we want to add restrictions to our search, for example to search among the posts of a specific user, we have to tweak the query_index function or add another function in search.py right ? .

  • #8 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-22T17:45:34Z

    @Yasir: sounds like you have a more basic problem here. A connection error likely means that you are not running the elasticsearch service. Make sure you follow the instructions to start elasticsearch on your computer before you move forward with the rest of the tutorial.

  • #9 Davron said 2018-03-22T21:32:54Z

    Hi, really great work, thank you! Unfortunately I ran into an exception while testing the search.py code on python console. I ran docker image of elasticsearch this is my elasticsearch version: { "name" : "rDTsSVp", "cluster_name" : "elasticsearch", "cluster_uuid" : "j7k2bd5rR7axEcsYA4wkYA", "version" : { "number" : "5.6.8", "build_hash" : "688ecce", "build_date" : "2018-02-16T16:46:30.010Z", "build_snapshot" : false, "lucene_version" : "6.6.1" }, "tagline" : "You Know, for Search" } then, added class attribute, __searchable__ with fields to my model, as it says here and when i ran in the console "query_index" function, i am getting this: raise HTTP_EXCEPTIONS.get(status_code, TransportError)(status_code, error_message, additional_info) elasticsearch.exceptions.RequestError: TransportError(400, 'search_phase_execution_exception', 'The _source field is not searchable') what might have gone wrong ?

  • #10 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-23T00:29:45Z

    @damien200: What I would do to support that type of search is to add an additional field to the elasticsearch index that has the user id for each post. Then you can search the id and text fields together.

  • #11 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-23T00:32:40Z

    @Davron: Could you try with a 6.x release? Older releases may not support the same queries, the 6.x code line has been around for a while, I haven't tested 5.x.

  • #12 James said 2018-03-23T09:21:54Z

    Thank you one more time. I love your posts. One question though: what changes need to be made for search to include content within attached documents on the system? Second what implementation is needed to include similarity index check, (ie plagiarism) for documents within the system and the internet. So that if I have a blog, I prevent (actually detect) posts that appear elsewhere and the percentage copied other blog posts elsewhere, or duplicating posts previously posted here?

  • #13 Serhiy said 2018-03-23T13:09:38Z

    Hi, Miguel. In your python example I enter five elements for search where: 2nd -> body={'text': 'this'} 4th -> body={'text': 'another test'} 5th -> body={'text': 'this test'} Then I search with query where: body={'query': {'match': {'text': 'this test'}}} And the resulting scores are: [('2', 0.80259144), ('4', 0.6099695), ('5', 0.5753642), ('1', 0.5753642), ('3', 0.2876821)] How can it be?! The exact match has only 0.5753642 score while 2nd and 4th has bigger scores 5th.

  • #14 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-23T17:35:21Z

    @James: The implementation I show in this article is for full-text search. You can search anything that you incorporate into the full-text index. If you want "attached documents" to be searchable, then you need to incorporate their contents into the full-text index. Plagiarism search is different. I honestly don't know much about it, but I would imagine it requires a more specialized type of tool that uses full-text search as a base.

  • #15 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-23T17:37:45Z

    @Serhiy: that was not my experience when I tested this. Do you have a standalone script that you can share that reproduces the problem?

  • #16 Serhiy said 2018-03-25T02:36:03Z

    Hi, Miguel. I don't see where in your code you use Post.reindex() command. Without this the search-functionality can't work because elastic search knows nothing of the index "post". I can of course to call this command BEFORE I launch the program (for example: -> flask shell -> Post.reindex() -> exit() -> flask run), but I don't think it's good. Did you do it intentionally not mentioning of this? So I think we need to add: search.py: ... def delete_index(index): if not current_app.elasticsearch: return if index in current_app.elasticsearch.indices.get_alias(): current_app.elasticsearch.indices.delete(index=index) models.py: class SearchableMixin(object): ... @classmethod def deleteindex(cls): delete_index(cls.__tablename__) auth/routes.py: @bp.route('/login', methods=['GET', 'POST']) def login(): ... login_user(user, remember=form.remember_me.data) Post.reindex() next_page = request.args.get('next') ... @bp.route('/logout') def logout(): Post.deleteindex() ... Then when some user log(s)in the index "post" is created (or refreshed) and he is able to search. And when this user log(s)out the index "post" is deleted.

  • #17 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-25T06:06:30Z

    @Serhiy: The reindex() function is only needed if you want to add blog posts that were created before the search functionality was added to the application, or if you want to regenerate your search database. It is not needed as part of the normal application use, because blog posts are automatically added to the search index at the same time they are added to the main database.

  • #18 james said 2018-03-25T23:52:20Z

    Thanks for the tutorial. At least for me, you're right about not getting it right away! I did find one issue where if the user enters a big number for the page (e.g. a billion) or something normal but outside the results ( ...&page=5 when there are only 4 pages) in the browser's address bar an exception is thrown. Would wrapping the code for the search view in a try-except block be a decent way to solve this or considered ugly or bad?

  • #19 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-26T05:53:52Z

    @james: Flask has a wrapper around the application functions, which is actually from where the exception is thrown by default. A better solution that building yet another wrapper is to add an error handler. Now, for this situation, I think checking for bounds in the pagination input from the user is actually the best solution. I should have done that.

  • #20 Tyler said 2018-03-26T19:21:31Z

    I'm getting a TypeError when adding the `User` model to the search index. Full Output: https://gist.github.com/tyler-8/d28bb435d8c3ef701e9536a52492775d --- models.py --- class User(SearchableMixin, UserMixin, db.Model): __searchable__ = ['username'] db.event.listen(db.session, 'before_commit', User.before_commit) db.event.listen(db.session, 'after_commit', User.after_commit)

  • #21 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-26T21:11:04Z

    @Tyler: based on the info you provided, my guess is that your before_commit handler did not do what it needed to do, which is to write all the changes included in the session to the session._changes dictionary. Check the code in that function against mine to see if you can find what's missing.

  • #22 Akinwande said 2018-03-27T11:57:21Z

    Hi Miguel, thanks for this tutorial. I installed Elasticsearch into my virtual environment using ' pip install elasticsearch' and everything was successful. But when i checked if it was running on my machine @ " http://localhost:9200" i got this response ' localhost refused to connect" . i've being on this and still looking through online resources if i could figured out a way to fix the problem, but any pointers from you will be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  • #23 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-27T15:12:00Z

    @Akinwande: what you installed is the elasticsearch client, not the service. You also need to install the Elasticsearch service on your computer. Review the "Installing Elasticsearch" section of this article.

  • #24 Niraj said 2018-03-28T04:38:49Z

    Getting error while searching text in search box. Also I am not able to start ElasticSearch service. How to start elastic Search service on windows 10? During handling of the above exception, another exception occurred: Traceback (most recent call last): File "<console>", line 1, in <module> File "c:\users\nirajc\envs\microblog\lib\site-packages\elasticsearch\client\utils.py", line 76, in _wrapped return func(*args, params=params, **kwargs) File "c:\users\nirajc\envs\microblog\lib\site-packages\elasticsearch\client\__init__.py", line 319, in index _make_path(index, doc_type, id), params=params, body=body) File "c:\users\nirajc\envs\microblog\lib\site-packages\elasticsearch\transport.py", line 314, in perform_request status, headers_response, data = connection.perform_request(method, url, params, body, headers=headers, ignore=ignore, timeout=timeout) File "c:\users\nirajc\envs\microblog\lib\site-packages\elasticsearch\connection\http_urllib3.py", line 175, in perform_request raise ConnectionError('N/A', str(e), e) elasticsearch.exceptions.ConnectionError: ConnectionError(<urllib3.connection.HTTPConnection object at 0x07571290>: Failed to establish a new connection: [WinError 10061] No connection could be made because the target machine actively refused it) caused by: NewConnectionError(<urllib3.connection.HTTPConnection object at 0x07571290>: Failed to establish a new connection: [WinError 10061] No connection could be made because the target machine actively refused it)

  • #25 Miguel Grinberg said 2018-03-29T05:06:41Z

    @Niraj: are you running the elasticsearch service?

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