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Full text search and searches with Django and Postgres

Full text search and searches with Django and Postgres

Sometimes when we type we make a mistake in a letter, we can repeat it, omit it or change it for another one. That mistake can lead to a series of different results in a web search, or even no results at all. Maybe for a blog it does not represent a threat, but for an ecommerce it can mean the loss of a sale, and for those stores with a huge traffic, a successful text search, either using full text search or something more complex, in Django or another framework, can represent the difference between losses or huge profits.

Django is a framework that abstracts most of the code you need to perform text searches in Postgres, so if you are thinking about a project that requires a search engine, using Django combined with Postgres is a combination to take into account another popular option to perform searches in Django is Solr and Django-haystack.

If you are still hesitating about using Django, check my post where I explain the advantages and disadvantages of Django

If you already know how basic searches work and want to move on to more complex searches with trigrams visit my trigrams and advanced searches with Django. post.

Let’s start with the most basic searches.

contains and icontains with Django and Postgres

Django has a number of basic functions that allow you to search for an exact match of a text string.

from videogame.models import Videogame
<QuerySet []>
# ...WHERE "videogame_videogame"."name"::text LIKE %NIER%

But this will exclude the words “nier”, “Nier” and any other case differences. So we should perform a case insensitive search for these differences. Now it doesn’t matter if the user used upper or lower case. Notice how, internally, the SQL query returns all uppercase.

Videogame.objects.filter(name__icontains="nier") # nota la i, antes de contains
<QuerySet [<Videogame: Nier automata>]>
#...WHERE UPPER("videogame_videogame"."name"::text) LIKE UPPER(%nier%)

But what if our search string has accents? A search for “nier” (without accent) will give us different results than “niér” (accented). Usually people on the internet do not take care of the correct accentuation of words. So, in order to return what they are looking for, it is necessary to create a search in which the correct accentuation is irrelevant.

<QuerySet []>
Videogame.objects.filter(name__unaccent__icontains="tekkén") # Ahora no importa que la palabra esté acentuada
<QuerySet [<Videogame: Tekken>]>
#...WHERE UPPER(UNACCENT("videogame_videogame"."name")::text) LIKE '%' || UPPER(REPLACE(REPLACE(REPLACE(UNACCENT(tekkén), E'\\', E'\\\\'), E'%', E'\\%'), E'_', E'\\_')) || '%'

If you got an error when you ran the above search, it is because you have not installed the unnacent extension. Let’s install it.

How to install Postgres extensions in Django?


Have psycopg2 and its dependencies installed in your virtual environment

pipenv install psycopg2 # también sirve con pip install psycopg2

Likewise, make sure your project has the django.contrib.postgres application installed and check that you are using postgres in the DATABASES variable of your configuration file:


    # ...
    # ...

# ...

    'default': {
        'ENGINE': 'django.db.backends.postgresql_psycopg2',
        'NAME': 'base_de_datos',
        'USER': 'usuario',
        'PASSWORD': 'contrasena',
        'HOST': 'localhost',
        'PORT': '5432',

Installing postgres extensions in Django from a migration

To install a new extension create an empty migration which we will modify next. Now we open the file and install the extensions under the operations section.

./ makemigrations tu_app --empty

Now we place in operations the extension we want to install.

from django.contrib.postgres.operations import UnaccentExtension

class Migration(migrations.Migration):

    dependencies = [

    operations = [
        # TrigramExtension() # Descomenta esta linea para instalar esta extensión también

Let’s run the migrations.

./ migrate

There, now we have the unaccent extension installed and, if you uncommented the line in the migrations file, TrigramExtension will also be installed.

Installing extensions from the Postgres terminal

Another way to install the extensions is to execute the required command directly from the database. For this example we install TrigramExtension, the extension required to use trigram searches. I will cover trigrams with django and postgres, so don’t worry about that, just focus on the process of installing the extensions.

To enter the database terminal I will use the dbshell command provided by Django.

python3 dbshell
psql (9.6.20)
conexión SSL (protocolo: TLSv1.2, cifrado: ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384, bits: 256, compresión: desactivado)
Digite «help» para obtener ayuda.

basededatos=# CREATE EXTENSION pg_trgm;

With all the functions we have seen above, we can search with uppercase, lowercase, accents and without accents, but what about more complex searches?

When performing a search it would not make sense to search for articles and prepositions, as it would return too many results, so it is better to omit them. Imagine how many results you would get in an online store with a thousand items if you search for the article “he” or the preposition “in”.

Another aspect that would be great for our searches would be to return words that match the same lexeme or base. That is, if our user searches for “cat”, we would probably also want to return data that match derivatives of that word: cat, cat, cats, cats, cats, cats, gatuno or any other word that starts with “gat”.

Creating a tsvector in postgres

All of the above is quite common in Postgres and is already covered by Django’s search functionality. Django incorporates full text searching.

And what is that? Well, translating directly from the postgres page it means more or less the following.

Full-text search (or text-only search) provides the ability to identify natural language documents that satisfy a query, and optionally sort them by their relevance to the query. The most common type of search is to find all documents that contain certain terms of a query and return them sorted by their similarity to the query.

The similarity will take into account the number of times the word appears, how far apart the search queries are in the text and other factors that we can establish ourselves.

Videogame.objects.filter(name__search="dutchman revenge")
<QuerySet [<Videogame: Spongebob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman>]>
# WHERE to_tsvector(COALESCE("videogame_videogame"."name", )) @@ plainto_tsquery(dutchman revenge)

Isn’t it great? We passed a two-word phrase to our search, the words are not adjacent in our data, and it still returned a result.

How does search work in Django?

Look at the SQL query in the last code block and note the to_tsvector and plainto_tsquery functions.

Full text search schema in Postgres

Diagram of full text search in Postgres

The search function executes the to_tsvector function, which takes the field of our model (in this case name) and removes the conjunctions, articles and leaves only the lexemes (the part of a word that does not change from a word with the gender and number of a word e.g.: gat would be the lexeme of cat, cat, cats, cats, etc.) and its position in the phrase passed as argument.

SELECT to_tsvector('english', 'Spongebob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman');
                        to_tsvector                        -
 'dutchman':7 'fli':6 'reveng':3 'spongebob':1 'squarep':2

Notice how articles and prepositions (of and the) were eliminated and how SquarePants became squarep, Revenge became reveng and flying became fli.

Also, notice how we specify the language. Postgres must receive the correct language to identify lexemes and propositions.

On the other hand, the plainto_tsquery function transforms its argument to a tsquery, which is the Boolean representation of the words of a phrase.

Transformation of a text string into a tsquery in Postgres

SELECT plainto_tsquery('english', 'dutchman revenge');
    plainto_tsquery    -
 'dutchman' & 'reveng'

Did you notice that revenge became reveng?

Once search has the results of each function it compares them to see if they match or not.

In this way our search will be much more flexible and it will no longer be necessary for the user to search for an exact text string in order to return the results we want.

Text search in multiple fields of a Django model

Searching on a single field is quite limiting, so we can use SearchVector to search on multiple fields, even foreign key relationships.

Simply separate the field names using commas.

from import SearchVector
     search=SearchVector('name', 'description'),

SearchVector objects can also be combined for better readability.

from import SearchVector
     search=SearchVector('name') + SearchVector('description'),

Remember I told you that lexemes and propositions vary by language? Well, in the config parameter we can specify the language on which we want postgres to work for that query.

from import SearchVector
from django.db import F

     search=SearchVector('name', 'description', config=F('blog__language')), # config = 'spanish' también valia

Repeat the calls to_tsvector is inefficient

Notice that every time we perform a query using the Django ORM, the to_tsvector function is executed on the field we specify, but what if the field in our model contains a lot of information? The function is going to run with each search and return the same result over and over again, isn’t it a bit inefficient? Well, yes, and the Django developers have already thought of that.

from django.db import models
from import SearchVectorField

class Videogame(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=256)
    created = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
    modified = models.DateTimeField(auto_now=True)
    search_vector = SearchVectorField(blank=True, null=True)

    def __str__(self):

This new field is like any other field, at the beginning it has nothing and we can put anything in it, although we probably want it to contain the vector of one of the fields of our model. But Django will not make it automatic, it is our responsibility to keep it updated with the content that suits us, either by overwriting the save method, using signals, periodic tasks, celery or whatever approach you prefer.

from import SearchVector


If you are interested to deepen more about how Postgres handles internally these functions, I found an excellent article on text search in postgresql where they explain in SQL code the search vectors.

Enter my next post where I will talk about advanced searches with Postgres and Django.

Eduardo Zepeda
Web developer and GNU/Linux enthusiast always learning something new. I believe in choosing the right tool for the job and that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I'm under the impression that being perfect is the enemy of getting things done. I also believe in the goodnesses of cryptocurrencies outside of monetary speculation.
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