on the net
photo Greg Notess
Reference Librarian
Montana State University

With customization,

a searcher can choose

which search options to

have readily available

Customization Options for Web Searching

ONLINE, January 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


Back in the dim, distant past of Web searching, HotBot reigned supreme as the search engine of choice for scripted power searching features. In one of its earliest incarnations, the searcher could choose which options of the HotBot search form should display. Saving these settings on the searcher's computer in the cookies file meant that each time the searcher revisited HotBot, the favorite search options would appear. Unfortunately, that ability to customize or personalize the search settings disappeared when HotBot "upgraded" to a version 2 of its interface.

Since that time, several years ago, none of the search engines has offered any ability to customize or personalize search settings. But that is changing, as the summer of 2000 witnessed several search engines suddenly offering such settings. Searchers now have more options and settings available for a variety of search and display features.


The ability to customize a Web page is not new. People have been able to customize pages for several years, especially on the portals that offer a "My" page option. There is a My Yahoo, My Netscape, My iWon, and the My Excite Start Page. Several libraries even offer a customizable My Library page. These types of service let the user choose the layout of the page, the content on the page (from a preselected list of choices), and the order of that content. Typically these services are relatively easy to use, and making changes requires only a few clicks.

But the Web search engines have been remarkably devoid of these customization options since HotBot's vanished years ago. Even at the "My" portals, the customization has only applied to the surrounding portal content such as news, scores, and stocks. The search box has not been part of the options to customize.


While the average Web searcher may want just a simple search box, customization offers several advantages for the advanced searcher. The power search, super search, advanced search, or whatever else it may be called, usually has a wide variety of special search options. Yet not every searcher uses all of them. One may always want a date limit available while another uses the domain limits. With customization, a searcher can choose which search options to have readily available.

The search screen is not the only option for customizing. The search results can also be displayed in a variety of ways. What kind of record do you want to see? Which fields and in which order? What else do you want to have included on the search results page? While none of the customizable search engines yet offer the level of specificity available from traditional commercial online services, this is at least a start in that direction.

In addition to the advantages for the individual searcher, the customization does not necessarily have to be used for only personalization. For those who control the setup of public computers, the customized options can be set on the public computers as well.


For the search engines that now support customization, the basic process is the same on all of them. The searcher needs to first choose the customization, personalization, or options link. The search engine then displays the available choices. After the searcher chooses which preferences to set and clicks a Save button, the search engine uses a cookie to save the preferences on the searcher's computer.

Since these preferences are saved onto the computer, they will only be available from that particular computer; they are not portable. In addition, cookies are browser-dependent, so the browser must have cookies enabled. If you use Netscape and Internet Explorer (or any other combination of browsers), the customization will only work from the browser that was used to set the preferences. Each browser could have its own settings. It is important to remember that switching browsers or switching to another computer may require setting the preferences again. And, as can sometimes happen with information stored in a cookies file, if it gets corrupted or otherwise lost, the preferences will have to be reconfigured. Fortunately, they are relatively easy to set up again.


The summer of 2000 witnessed four search engines introduce (or re-introduce) customization. The Fast database introduced a customization option on its All the Web site. AltaVista added customization on its Simple, Power, and Advanced search screens along with its Raging Search site. Google established an Options page. And HotBot, with its Inktomi database, has finally brought back a Personalize These Settings button.

All the Web

Fast's customization offerings at its All the Web site are relatively simplistic. Look for the Customize link near the search box on either the simple or advanced search form. It has only three options that can be customized: Offensive Content Reduction, Language Settings, and Number of Word Filters.

The Offensive Content Reduction filter tries to eliminate "offensive material" from search results. While it does not state so specifically, this filter primarily excludes pornography. The site does note that it only works for English-language pages and that it can miss some material. In the fall of 2000, All the Web switched its default so that now the offensive content filter is turned on unless you use the Customize option to turn it off.

The Language Settings encompasses both a language limit and the supporting character sets. The default is to search all languages. If another language is chosen, it only supports searching one language at a time. The character sets also can only support one choice at a time. The customization form groups the 31 languages by the character set needed to support them.

The third option from All the Web is the Number of Word Filters. This controls how many boxes are available on the advanced search screen for combining field searches and other terms. The default is three, but the customization option provides a range from 1-10.

All three of these options from Fast can also be easily controlled directly on the advanced search screen. So for many searchers, there will be little need to use the customization. The most commonly used will probably be for those who routinely want a search limited to a certain language and character set or for those who wish to keep the Offensive Content Reduction turned off.


Google's personalization choices are similar to Fast's. Originally eschewing the label of customization or personalization, Google chose the more descriptive if rather unwieldy label of "Language, Display, and Filtering Options" for its customization offering. Now, it is just labeled "preferences." Available directly beside the search box on the simple search page but not on the advanced search, the link displays an options page with four choices: Interface Language, Search Language, Number of Results, and SafeSearch Filtering. The Interface Language changes the language of the surrounding text on Google. In other words, choose any one of the 14 available languages and the Google tips, messages, explanations, and even the search button will all be in that language. Originally tied to the language limit used, this can now be completely separate so that a search might be limited to documents in Spanish while the surrounding text from Google is in Finnish.

The Search Language option presents 24 languages (with ten of these still listed as in beta as of October 2000) to choose from. As on All the Web, the default is to find pages in any language. But unlike on All the Web, Google allows the searcher to select any combination of the 24 languages, not just one at a time. The Google SafeSearch Filtering option is turned off by default. When enabled, SafeSearch tries to exclude adult Web site content and can only be turned off by returning to the "Preferences" page. It is not directly available on the simple or advanced search pages.

In a step beyond what Fast offered as a customizable option, Google includes a section for Number of Results. While this option used to be available on Google's main search page, it is now only on the advanced search page and as an option to be customized. The default is 10, but 20, 30, 50, and 100 are the other options. For those who like to see more than ten hits at a time and who are willing to wait a little bit longer for results to display, this is an extremely useful option in order to avoid always having to go to the advanced search and specifically select the higher number.


AltaVista has been expanding its search choices over the last year or so. Now in addition to the simple and advanced search screens, AltaVista also has a power search and Raging Search. Each search screen now also has a Customize Settings link. The simple, advanced, and power search screens all share one customization setting, but Raging Search's customize options only change Raging.

Like the others mentioned above, AltaVista has language options that can be personalized. The default is to search all languages, but the Language Options page of the customization choices lists 25 languages that can be selected as default limits. Like on Google, more than one language at a time can be chosen. AltaVista also offers several character sets to choose from.

AltaVista provides more choices than any other search engine in terms of its Results Options. Not only can the searcher choose how many results can be displayed at a time (10, 20, 30, 40, or 50), but also AltaVista lets the user choose what fields to display in the results. The list of options covers nine fields:

Last Modified
Web Page Size Web Site Language
More Pages from This Site
Related Pages
Company Facts

Any combination of these fields can be chosen. And AltaVista also has a check box for highlighting the search term in the results.

For even more customization capabilities, Raging Search presents the ability to customize Results, Page Layout, Design, Language, and Advanced Search. Each of these sections has a wide variety of options for personalizing Raging. While the Design tab only changes color schemes, the others provide Raging with a wide range of search functionality.


As the first search engine to offer customization, it is great to see HotBot finally adding back such capabilities. The Personalize These Settings button is available only on the simple search screen, but that is the page it controls. While AltaVista provides a wealth of display options to customize, HotBot features the customization of search options.

The Personalize HotBot pages let you choose which search options appear on the main HotBot page and what options they have by default. The available search options include Look For, Language (only nine options), Word Filters, Date, Pages Must Include, Domain, Page Depth, Best Page Filter, Word Stemming, and Return Results. The Look For option is the drop-down menu containing choices such as All the Words, Any of the Words, Page Title, Links to This URL, and Boolean Phrase.

These personalization choices allow the searcher to create a search form that has Boolean as a default, to have domain and language limits displayed but not word filters, and to have HotBot display 100 results at a time. Many other combinations are possible as well.


The All the Web and Google customization options are fairly basic. But AltaVista's display options and HotBot's search personalization point the way to greater flexibility and choice for the advanced searcher. With four search engines supporting customization, maybe others will also be encouraged to add the ability and to try to provide even more choices or new options. Try out these new capabilities to see how they can help expedite your Web searching.

Greg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; http://www.notess.com/) is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.

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Copyright © 2001, Information Today, Inc. All rights reserved.