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Magazines > Online > January/February 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2004
On The Net
Toolbars: Trash or Treasures?
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana State University

Search engines have tripped over each other this past year in offering up toolbars. While the Google toolbar may be the best known—it was introduced at the end of 2000—other 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.

TOOLBAR BASICS

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.

TOOLBAR OPTIONS

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, and more.

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.

TOOLBAR ADVANTAGES

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 toolbars—AltaVista, Google, and Dogpile—now 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 word.

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.

TOOLBAR PROBLEMS

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 Desk Bar.

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 information—which 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 that address.

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.


Greg NotessGreg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; www.notess.com) is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com

Comments? Email the editor at marydee@infotoday.com.


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