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Friday, August 20, 2010

Mastering the Firefox Search Bar


I have in the past shied away from using in-browser search bars... instead preferring to use the search tools available on individual sites. This is for practical and functional purposes, as: [1] in-site searches tend to have more options than what's available in a search bar and [2] the types of searches that I normally do, including phrase searches and multi-keyword searches, frequently overflow the limited visible space available on search bars. Also, I like the "mental mode switch" of looking at a web site, focusing your attention on that site, and then executing an effective search.

However, the Firefox in-browser search bar does have two advantages over the site-by-site method. And they are: [1] convenience (some would argue efficiency, but if you run the numbers in terms of time saved, it's more a convenience gain than an efficiency gain), and [2] flexibility -- you can use the same search phrase, or variants thereof, for multiple search engines without having to cut and paste.

This means that, for certain types of searches, it makes sense to use the search bar (for quick and easy searches), and for other types of searches, it makes sense to use the site-by-site method (for in-depth searches). Thus, a searcher seeking to optimize productivity will want to use both methods as appropriate.

So, in the spirit of CSI (Constant Strategic Improvement), I am integrating the Firefox search bar into my search habits. In order to make the Firefox search bar useful to me, I have added in a number of search engines. As of this writing, I have added the following search engines. (Most are listed on Mozilla.org's search engine list, found by selecting "Get more search engines..." from the "Manage Search Engines" panel.):


It's interesting... making the search engine list made me look at all of the search engines I use regularly, as well as some that I use occasionally. It's a good way to check your "search engine system" to see if you have engines for all of the different searches that you want to do online... In other words, do you know where to look to quickly find what you want online?

I said it before and I say it again: All of the information in the world is useless if you can't find it.

Thus, making the list made me realize that there were a few areas for which I don't have a regular "goto" search engine at this time. For example: Torrents. I don't have a regular torrent search engine at this time because IsoHunt got smacked with a lawsuit by the MPAA, and since I haven't had much of an need for torrents in the past few months, I haven't gotten around to finding a suitable IsoHunt replacement. However, by searching the search engine list (hehehe) on Mozilla.org I found KickassTorrents, which looks promising.

I have also added a Firefox plug-in called "Add to Search Bar" (link), which lets you automatically add any site's search bar to the Firefox search bar. (In the past I've extracted and added searches manually, even designing a whole multi-search page of all the search engines I was using at the time... so having a tool to extract and format the search forms for you is very nice.) I used it to add allmusic.com, Infoplease.com, and Playlist.com to the search engine list.

So that's the current "state of the search", if you will. smile.gif Heh. I didn't even know there was "a state of the search" until I wrote that last sentence, but since online searching is something is something that I do very often, usually several times a day, it makes perfect strategic sense to focus on it as an area to improve my techniques and skills. It's not that my current search skills aren't good--they're very good--but they could always be better.

And this step will make them better... and this step will also lead to further improvements. So lets see how it goes... and I wonder what my search-bar-search-engine list will look like in a month.


Additional notes:

Auto-keyword suggestions
Some of the search engines have built in keyword suggest in the search bar as you type, which is very cool and very useful. Of the engines I am currently using, Amazon, Ask, Bing, Google, Wikipedia, and Yahoo have search suggestions.

Search engine renaming
The default Firefox interface doesn't allow you to rename search engines without a bit of hacking. I renamed some of the search engines to shorter, cleaner names using the following method: How To Rename Firefox Search Plug-ins. The method requires editing the Firefox XML files in the "searchplugins" folder, which sounds scary but isn't. For example, I renamed "Wikipedia (en)" to "Wikipedia".

Another, perhaps easier, method of renaming search engines in the search bar is to delete the engine from the list and use the "Add to Search Bar" plug-in to re-add the engine with the name you prefer. The disadvantage of this method is that, if the search engine has keyword suggestions, "Add to Search Bar" will not add the keyword suggestions. (This is not the fault of the plug-in. At this point in time, there isn't a web standard yet for keyword suggestions and each site does it a bit differently. Hence you can't expect a universal plug-in to be able to accurately determine something that is not standardized.)

Search engine shortcuts
Firefox also has the feature of configurable search engine shortcuts which you can use to search any engine on your list from the url bar. For example, if you put the shortcut for Dictionary.com to "d" you could type "d [word]" into the url bar to search for the definition of a word. Very cool, and very efficient.

Note that Firefox calls the shortcuts "keywords" which is an inaccurate name and easily confused with "search keywords". Shortcut is a more accurate term and the term I use here to avoid confusion.

News, video, and image searches
I currently use a combination of the major search engines for news, video, and image searches. All of these search types are available "just a click away" on any major search engine, so there is no pressing need to add them directly to the Firefox search bar. However, for greater convenience, I may add news, video, or image searches directly to the search bar in the future.

Open a search in new window
If you want to open a search in a new window, middle click the search icon (the magnifying glass) at the right of the search bar. Otherwise search results open in the current window.

Additional search engines to find
I still need to find a good software/freeware search engine.

Karl - Contributing Author

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