A PHP MySQL snippet for looking up names

For a recent project, I needed to create a form that would perform a look up of people names in a MySQL database, but I wanted to use a single input field. To make it easy on the users of the form, I wanted the input field to accept names in either “Firstname Lastname” or “Lastname, Firstname” format, and I wanted it to autocomplete matches as the users typed, including when they typed both names separated by a space or a comma followed by a space.

The Ajax lookup was quick work with jQuery UI’s Autocomplete widget. The harder part was figuring out the most simple table structure and an appropriate SQL query.

A flawed beginning

My people table contains a “first_name” column and a “last_name” column, nothing uncommon there. To get the project out the door, I wrote a PHP function that ran two ALTER TABLE queries on the people table to create two additional columns for pre-formatted strings (column “firstlast”, to be formatted as “Firstname Lastname”, and column “lastfirst”, to be formatted as “Lastname, Firstname”), added indexes on these columns, and then walked through each record in the table, populating these new fields. I then wrote a very straight forward SQL query to perform a lookup on both fields. The PHP and query looked something like this:

// The jQuery UI Autocomplete widget passes the user input as a value for the parameter "name"
$name= $_GET['name'];

// This SQL query uses argument swapping
$query = sprintf("SELECT * FROM people WHERE (`firstlast` LIKE '%1\$s' OR `lastfirst` LIKE '%1\$s') ORDER BY `lastfirst` ASC",
mysql_real_escape_string($name. "%", $link));

This was effective, accurate, and pretty fast, but the addition of columns bothered me and I didn’t like that I needed to run a process to generate those pre-formatted fields each time a record was added to the table (or if a change was made to an existing record). One possible alternative was to watch the input and match either lastname or firstname until the user entered a comma or a space, then explode the string on the comma or space and search more precisely. Once a comma or a space was encountered, I felt pretty sure that I would be able to accurately determine which part of the input was the first name and which was the last name. But this had that same inefficient, clunky bad-code-smell as the extra columns. (Explode is one of those functions that I try to avoid using.) Writing lots of extra PHP didn’t seem necessary or right.

I’m much more comfortable with PHP than with MySQL queries, but I realize that one can do some amazing things within the SQL query, and that it’s probably faster to use SQL to perform some functions. So, I decided that I’d try to work up a query that solved my problem, rather than write more lines of PHP.

CONCAT_WS to the rescue

I Googled around for a bit and settled on using CONCAT_WS to concatenate the first names and last names into a single string be matched, but found it a bit confusing to work with. I kept trying to use it to create an alias, “lastfirst”, and then use the alias in the WHERE clause, which doesn’t work, or I was getting the literal column names back instead of the values. Eventually, I hit upon the correct usage.

The PHP and query now looks like this:

// The jQuery UI Autocomplete widget passes the user input as a value for the parameter "name"
$name= $_GET['name'];

// This SQL query uses argument swapping
$query = sprintf("SELECT *, CONCAT_WS(  ', ',  `last_name`,  `first_name` ) as lastfirst FROM people WHERE (CONCAT_WS(  ', ',  `last_name`,  `first_name` ) LIKE '%1\$s' OR CONCAT_WS(  ' ',  `first_name`,  `last_name` ) LIKE '%1\$s') ORDER BY lastfirst ASC",
mysql_real_escape_string($name. "%", $link));

The first instance of CONCAT_WS isn’t needed for the lookup. The first instance allows me to order the results alphabetically and provides me an array key of “lastfirst” with a value of the person’s name already formatted as “Lastname, Firstname”, so I don’t have to do it later with PHP. The lookup comes from the two instances of CONCAT_WS in the WHERE clause. I haven’t done any performance measuring here, but the results of the lookup get back to the user plenty fast enough, if not just as quickly as the method using dedicated columns.

The result of the query is output back to the page as JSON-formatted data for use in the jQuery Autocomplete.

The end result works exactly as I had hoped. A user of the form is able to type a person’s name in whatever way is comfortable to them, as “Bob Smith” or “Smith, Bob”, and the matches are found either way. The only thing it doesn’t do is output the matches back to the autocompleter in the same format that the user is using. But I can live with that for now.

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