On The Net
Toolbars: Trash or Treasures?
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana
Search engines have tripped over each other this past year in offering up
toolbars. While the Google toolbar may be the best knownit was introduced
at the end of 2000other companies had launched various toolbars even
earlier. In most cases, they failed to attract a large following.
The success and popularity of Google's toolbar has spawned broad interest
from other search engines and sites in creating their own branded search toolbars.
Google upgraded its toolbar last year, while AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Teoma,
Dogpile, HotBot, Lycos, and many others hit the market.
These toolbars are free to download and install. They become embedded in
the browser or the Windows taskbar and offer quick access to the search box,
along with other helpful features such as highlighting search terms and blocking
pop-up ads. Yet the insidious fault of toolbars lies in the over-reliance on
the search engine that their constant presence engenders.
Using a toolbar now? Read on to see what some of the others have to offer.
Not using one? Explore the capabilities featured below and consider the disadvantages
associated with them before deciding which one to try. Absolutely fascinated
with toolbars? Load them all, but just do not expect to have much screen space
left to view the Web pages they find.
Almost all of these toolbars have very specific requirements for operating
system and Web browser. All but the HotBot Desk Bar work only with Internet
Explorer (IE) and not with other browsers such as Netscape, Mozilla, or Opera.
Older versions of IE do not work either, as most toolbars have IE 5 as the
minimum version number. Some features, such as Google's pop-up block, work
only with IE 5.5 or higher.
Windows is the required operating system for all of these. Some toolbars,
including AltaVista's and Google's, are supposed to work on Windows 95, but
others, like the Ask Jeeves, Teoma, and Dogpile toolbars, require Windows 98
or better. As for Macintosh, Linux, and Unix users, you will have to look for
these capabilities elsewhere.
The technical requirements limit the potential audience, although the limitation
is to the most common browser and operating systems. Yet in some organizations
with very restrictive IT environments or where network security is extremely
tight, even users running Windows with the IE browser may not be able (or allowed)
to load such programs.
For Windows & IE users, most of the toolbars will display within the
browser near the top of the page, below the links toolbar. In a few cases,
they may not display after installation. All can all be turned on or off via
the View/Toolbars menu.
The Yahoo! Companion Toolbar is a bit different from the others in that while
it offers the search box, its other buttons and offerings provide quick access
to popular information resources available from the Yahoo! portal. To use the
full capabilities of the Yahoo! Companion requires having a personal Yahoo!
account. With this, it is easy to customize the toolbar to provide quick access
to your most commonly used features such as e-mail, games, shopping, or finance.
Lycos takes a different approach. It renamed and relaunched its old "Fast
Forward" plug-in to "Lycos Sidesearch." Sidesearch differs from the other toolbars
in that it shows up on the side of the IE browser rather than on the top. It
is then accessible from a button at the top but it also appears when you search
at another search engine such as Yahoo! or Google. Although a good way to ensure
that you look at results from two search engines, the sudden appearance of
the Lycos search results in the sidebar will probably appear overly intrusive
to many people.
The one browser-independent toolbar is the HotBot Desk Bar. It still only
works under Windows, but instead of installing in the browser, it is installed
in the Windows taskbar. It will bring up your default browser when used, so
it works with all Windows browsers. All these toolbars are displayed in the
accompanying graphic, with the toolbars at the top, the Lycos Sidesearch open
after searching "toolbars" in the Yahoo! Companion, and the HotBot Desk Bar
at the bottom. The Desk Bar search box doubles as a clock and displays the
date as well.
Each of the toolbars has a wide variety of options. The primary common feature
is a search box with direct access to the search engine's main database. Enter
a query in the box, press enter, and the search results appear in the main
window, just as if you had gone directly to the search engine first. The toolbar
helps speed searching by leaving out that first step of having to go the search
engine's Web site before starting a search.
In addition, most of the other kinds of searches available from a search
engine are available via the toolbar. Ask Jeeves has additional buttons for
searching pictures, news, Ask Jeeves Kids, and a dictionary. AltaVista has
images, audio, video, news, U.S. Web, translation, dictionary, conversions,
and more. Google offers images, groups, directory, news, Froogle, dictionary,
In general, the toolbars pack in all sorts of quick links, search tools,
and quick find features into a small amount of screen real estate. The problem
is to find all the capabilities of the toolbar and what all the icons offer.
As a starting point, be sure to look through all the menu choices and configuration
options when the toolbar is first loaded. Look for button choices and other
toolbar options or configuration links. Click on the search engine logo and
explore those menu options as a starting point.
Using a toolbar certainly makes some search tasks much simpler. Instead of
entering the search engine's URL or clicking on a favorite or bookmark, you
just enter the query in the search box. Three toolbarsAltaVista, Google,
and Dogpilenow include pop-up blockers. They have links to dictionary,
phone number, thesaurus, acronym, currency, conversion, and other quick information
look-up services. Highlight buttons mark the query terms in the displayed document.
For those who have not found another solution to the annoyance of pop-up
and pop-under ads, this feature alone may warrant loading one of these toolbars.
Turned on (the default setting), the blockers prevent unrequested pop-up windows,
which are usually just ads. In the event it might be actual information content,
click the button and the blocker is either turned off or will now allow pop-ups
from this specific site. The toolbars like to count the number blocked and
emit some sound (Dogpile's barking dog is the most annoying). But the sounds
can be turned off and the counters re-set through the options configuration.
The site search capability of the Google and AltaVista toolbars is also a
great convenience. Visiting a Web site where you can't find the document you
expected to be there? Just enter a keyword or two in the toolbar search box.
Instead of clicking "Search the Web," click the arrow to the right of it to
choose the "Current Site" (Google) or "This Site" (AltaVista) search. Bear
in mind that the site search is limited by which pages from the site are actually
in the search engine's database. A local site search may be more comprehensive,
but in a surprising number of cases, the search engine site search is more
accurate and comprehensive than a local site search.
The Highlight and Find in Document functions are other nice conveniences.
After entering a search query in the toolbar search box, the query words also
appear on the toolbar. Clicking on any of the query words in the toolbar will
jump to the first occurrence of that search word in the document currently
being displayed. These words will stay in the toolbar until the next search
is done, so even after browsing to a results page, they can still be used.
AltaVista, Dogpile, and Google toolbars all offer this Find in Document feature.
Of course, it could just as easily be accomplished with a Control-F or Find
in Document function of the browser, but that usually requires re-typing the
Highlighting the query terms is a popular option available in toolbars. The
ones from AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Dogpile, Google, Teoma, and Yahoo! all have
a button for it. Sometimes, the button is a toggle. Click the button once,
and all future search terms will be highlighted until the button is clicked
again. For others, the highlight button must be clicked each time the highlight
function is needed.
As with so much in life, the advantages of installing a toolbar come at a
price, but not in money. First of all, these browser toolbars take up space.
The more you add, the less room there is for the browser to display the Web
pages you find with the toolbars. The toolbar display on page 41 shows an extreme
case of lost space with its six toolbars, Lycos Sidesearch, and the HotBot
Be aware of some other problems and concerns with installing these. Due to
the way in which the toolbars are embedded into IE, there is a potential security
risk. In August 2002, Google had to release an update for the toolbar to fix
a few security holes in the previous version. (See details in "Google Fixes
Security Flaws in Search Toolbar" at PCWorld.com; http://snurl.com/holes.)
Google's toolbar also gives a warning at installation about privacy implications.
Some of its "advanced" features, such as displaying a PageRank value and giving
linked directory categories, cause certain information to be sent back to Google.
More details are at
http://toolbar.google.com/privacy.html, where it is stated in part, "Google
may collect information about Web pages that you are viewing when the advanced
functionality is enabled." While
most people trust in Google, anyone at a high-security organization might do
well to stay away from the toolbar.
What about the value of the Page-Rank display? The toolbar displays a graphic
icon; placing the mouse cursor over the icon will display a message like "PageRank
is Google's measure of the importance of this page (4/10)." This puts the PageRank
on a 10-point scale with a high of 10 (seemingly reserved for Google and Yahoo!
only) and a low of zero. The display of some form of the PageRank "relevance" score
is certainly one of the reasons driving the popularity of the Google toolbar.
It is the only toolbar to include this informationwhich is not readily
available anywhere else from Google or on the Web.
Thousands of Web site owners and search engine marketers watch their own
and their competitors' PageRank very closely. They constantly try to increase
their score and attempt to figure out how to get a higher ranking. For some,
a higher PageRank score is the beginning and the end of the search engine marketing
campaign. Yet the PageRank score is only one of many factors that determine
a page's ranking in the results. Some Webmasters even suspect that the displayed
PageRank score on the Google toolbar has little bearing on their ranking in
searches and may not even be an accurate reflection of their actual PageRank
score. Although the information is available from the Google toolbar, it is
of dubious use.
One of the interesting options available from the Dogpile toolbar (and the
related ones from WebCrawler and other InfoSpace-owned properties) is that
during the installation, you have the option to "use Dogpile (or WebCrawler,
etc.) when the browser can't find a site." In other words, when you enter a
URL in the IE address bar and IE can't find that address or it will not respond,
you automatically get taken to a Dogpile search for that URL.
This actually works less well than IE's own error response. IE will ask, "Did
you intend to go to one of these similar Web addresses?" and give several host
names close to what was typed. IE also offers an option to "Check availability
or register the domain name," which is an ad for domain registration services.
The Dogpile error message gives neither of these options and simply searches
for the entered address in the Dogpile metasearch database. Worse, there is
no way to turn off error response without uninstalling the toolbar.
Good thing Google would never do something like that, right? Actually, it
has a similar option. Under the Google toolbar Options, then the More tab,
is an option to "Use Google as my default search engine in Internet Explorer." This
is turned off by default. Turn it on, and a keyword put in the address bar
will automatically run a Google search. Clicking the IE Search button will
open up a Google search in the left side panel. And entering a non-existent
or non-functioning URL in the address bar will default to a Google search on
Again, the Google response to such a search is actually less helpful than
IE's. It does not provide suggested URLs close to the mistyped one, nor does
it give a link (ad or not) to a registry service. The one advantage of the
Google option is that it does override the Dogpile choice. Then the Google
option can be turned off to get back to the IE default.
One last disadvantage to point out is the over-reliance on a single search
engine that toolbar use can cause. With that quick search box available near
the top of the browser, why use any other search engine?
THE BOTTOM LINE
After playing around with several of these toolbars, and despite recognizing
the value of many of the features mentioned above, the bottom line for me is
that the toolbars are an extremely effective form of advertising. They are
ads for the search engines that gave them away free to use. Even as the AltaVista,
Google, and Dogpile toolbars suppress those annoying pop-up ads, they do so
by making it more likely that you will come across their own text ads as a
result of the searches you run.
Whichever toolbar you load, and most people will not load more than one,
if you use that toolbar at all, it will certainly make that search engine your
default search engine. Switching to another search engine becomes less likely
as you get used to the toolbar. Why even visit the home page of your favored
search engine? Since a toolbar usually bypasses that home page, you may also
miss out on announcements of new features, capabilities, or problems.
Personally, despite several advantages of the toolbars, I rarely use them.
Since Mozilla is my default browser, it already handles pop-up ad suppression
quite well without the various sounds of the toolbars. Besides, none of the
toolbars work in Mozilla. Instead, I use the Control F (and Control G) keyboard
shortcuts to find terms within a Web page. And since some search results appear
where the search term may only be visible in the underlying source code, the
keyboard shortcuts work there while the toolbar buttons will not. For highlighting
or quick access to searches, I can use bookmarklets (see my July/August 2003 ONLINE column "Bookmarklets,
Favelets, and Keymarks: Shortcuts Galore") to select text and search or just
go quickly to various search engines.
I will occasionally install a toolbar as needed. If I do wish to see the
Google PageRank for a specific page, as inaccurate and misleading as the reported
number may be, it takes but a few minutes to reinstall the Google toolbar to
view it. If I need to use IE to browse popular Web sites, I can install the
AltaVista toolbar to suppress pop-ups. Or I may install it if I will be visiting
several non-English sites and I want quick access to the translation feature.
As searching and Web habits vary, some of the advantages of these toolbars
may well appeal to you. Try out the various toolbars to see which match your
habits and preferences. Certainly the pop-up blocker will appeal to many IE
users. Just be careful that it does not lock you in too closely to only using
one search engine.
R. Notess (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.notess.com)
is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
Comments? Email the editor at email@example.com.