revisiting search

Mozilla Firefox has had a search bar since its initial release, and has helped to change the way our users look up information by giving them a single interface to a variety of search services. It’s also had search services in the location bar, but they’re not as accessible or (arguably) useful as what’s offered by the search bar. There have been minor tweaks along the way to how these work, but nothing fundamental has changed with respect to search features in Firefox since its original release. We need to change that. Starting now.

Search behaviours have changed, and there are a number of new – and sometimes even different – search service providers out there. Unfortunately, our users don’t always realize how many options are available to them through Firefox, the websites they visit, and search-related add-ons. Our users today are using search to find other people, stuff that’s close to them, what everyone’s talking about right now, and a host of other things, and we should be making that as easy as possible for them.

Aside from the great UI work being considered, like moving the search bar into the location bar, I think there’s considerably more we need to do across a number of domains. I’d like for us to start exploring how we improve the use and utility of search in Mozilla’s products and services, particularly:

1. What kind of information are our users searching for, and who is best-positioned to provide the most relevant information for those searches?

The web has matured in the last five years, and people are using different search services for specific tasks. We should categorize the search services that are available in Firefox, and ensure they’re relevant to the task at hand for the people who use them. The Fennec team has developed its search interface with this in mind, providing search services for different tasks that our user base performs on a regular basis, and I think this is something we should build on.

2. Are we doing a good job meeting the needs of the users in each locale we support?

Every locale we support starts with the default list of providers we offer in the US English version of Firefox. Our amazing localization teams have created these lists to add search services that are more relevant to their locales and the users in them, and they do a great job. I’d like to ensure we all have a better understanding of who those providers are, and what, if any, alternatives there are per locale. From there we can build on the categorization process, and provide a truly global list of search services for our users.

3. How can we help our users discover and use the options available to them?

There are several search features in the browser, along with search options other than what we provide by default in our search bar. We need to make it easy for users to add to the list of search engines to the list of defaults we provide, to discover that there are add-ons that enhance search utility, and that they can change things like the default search provider(s). The mechanics behind these features could be improved considerably, and we should make changes to both to make them more usable by our publishers and users alike.

4. What does our search wish list look like?

We should think hard about what we’d like to change in Firefox to make search better, as well as where we should incorporate search services and which services should be offered. We don’t need to constrain ourselves to how we’ve done things thus far, and should consider including anything and everything that will help. If we could get things just by asking, would they include things like:

  • add-on searches and discovery
  • suggestions on error pages
  • better user control of search preferences
  • context-sensitive searches by website
  • searches from within new tabs
  • insert your idea here (and in the comments!)

The net result of this process should be a list of new services and features we can incorporate into the Mozilla project and its individual products, and would encompass all of the information assembled. The idea is to get people thinking, and come up with a public plan for improving search across the board to keep our products relevant and useful.

None of these ideas are new, and have been considered at different times by individual groups or people. They touch the user, the product, our content providers, localization and add-on communities, and almost every functional organization at Mozilla, and requires the input of same. As such, they’ll always be considered individually unless we shift from a tactical mode of thinking to something a little more strategic. I’d like to kick things off so we can start driving towards that.

The sky should be the limit, and we shouldn’t constrain ourselves to any particular mindset.

So, how do you think search should work?

19 thoughts on “revisiting search

  1. I don’t have such sweeping suggestions. I just know I’m happier when I flip the pref to open search results in a new tab.

    I use the location bar when I want to open something new in the same tab, and I use the search bar when I want it in another (usually researching something about something I just read, but not done with article yet).

    Using alt+enter doesn’t work so well for me because that’s not when I think. By the time I’ve typed in what I want to look for I just hit enter. I will differentiate the kb shortcut at the beginning of the action though, between ctrl+t, ctrl+l or ctrl+k

  2. Honestly, in the years since I started using Firefox, I’ve never installed a search plugin (besides one I developed). I only use the search bar for the one search provider it’s always set to: Google.

    To search normally: mash ctrl-K, type something, press Enter.

    To use an alternate search: click the down caret, pick it, perform the search as usual, then reach for the mouse a second time to set it back before I forget which one I had selected. I know ctrl-up/down work to scroll through the search providers, but this requires either memorizing the order or carefully watching for the one I want.

    To use a search keyword: mash ctrl-L, type a short identifier for the search I want, type what I want to search for, press Enter.

    And, of course, creating search keywords is far easier than either finding or creating a search plugin.

    I know an obscure combination of keystrokes isn’t exactly intuitive to most users, but it’s always seemed to me that Firefox has two ways to do the same thing, and the less obvious one is much easier. There was some mention of merging search plugins and bookmark keywords during the very early Places discussion; maybe this is still worth consideration.

  3. The browser can really start to try to understand the pairing between search terms and results, and think about what user actions say in terms of predicting likely next actions.

    To whit: if I frequently search for “berries” and always go to “strawberries.com”, then the next time I enter a search for “berries” we should just suggest that as a destination, skipping the middle step of viewing search results. If I frequently search for “berries” and always go to different places, then we can promote those results.

    Using our knowledge of the user’s behaviour to help speed up repeated tasks is a must in terms of search innovation.

  4. What about a more prominent question of “Would you like to add this search engine to the search bar?” in the form of a yellow info-bar?

    The info-bar wouldn’t appear until something like the third or fifth visit. There must also be a “No thanks” alternative which makes it go away for ever on that site.

  5. I prefer to keep the search bar. It would be good to auto remember keyword search(like chrome) and merge keyword searches(created by user or automatically) into the search bar. That way you allow the user to utilise different searches without manually installing addons.

    Also it would be good to be able to access the search options right from firefox. Like google offers ability to confine searches to results from your country only but currently you can’t access that from browser.

  6. It’s great that you’re considering improving this :)

    I’d just like to mention a few things I like about how Firefox’s search works at the moment, things that I would miss sorely if they were not possible any more. Firefox’s better keyword search/quicksearch functionality is a major part of the reason why I use it over Chrome.

    I have more than 20 quicksearch bookmarks, most of them dictionaries (note that one dictionary may have two or more search directions, hence the large number of quickseraches). I use more than of these 10 regularly.

    Unlike Chrome, Firefox allows

    1. manually editing the search URL, thus fine tuning the search options of the site

    2. on the rare occasions when Firefox gets the encoding wrong when using the “Add a keyword for this search…” option, it is possible to correct is manually using &mozcharset= option (essential for me)

    3. it allows adding more than one keyword for the same search (by means of multiple quicksearch bookmarks). This is very convenient when using a dictionary among languages with different scripts. Why switch keyboard layouts just to type the keyword, then switch back? Instead I have a keyword in each of the two scripts.

    4. Quicksearches are simply stored as bookmarks, so they’re transferrable between profiles with relative ease.

    Apart from quicksearches, I do use the search bar too, but I don’t usually switch search engines there. It’s just set to my main search engine all the time.

    Please improve Firefox’s search in such a way that you don’t break these things. I tried using Chrome, and found that it’s simplified search model is infinitely less useful than Firefox’s, especially for consulting dictionaries. In Firefox I can customize quickseraches to work exactly as I want, and I can look up a word in less than a second using the keyboard.

  7. Oh, and one more idea. If you’re worried about discoverability, why not just include some useful one-liner tips on a new tab page (if there is going to be a non-blank new tab page)? If you make things too explicit (like yellow alert bar for search providers), that can and will have it’s drawback (like being annoying). The reason so few people use the ‘Add keyword search…’ is simply that they don’t know about it, not that the current implementation is bad. A good UI won’t jump at you, it’ll just blend into the browser, which implies it being less immediately discoverable. But don’t forget that we discover a feature only once, and use it every days afterwards, so please focus on usability rather than discoverabililty when designing the UI for something. Discoverability should be a concern when structuring the documentation, i.e. either make it structured and browsable (not just searchable, as it is currently), or show tips to the user in some unobtrusive way, etc.

  8. As it is now, it is quite impossible to read the documentation and find out what nice things Firefox can do (that other browsers perhaps can’t). It’s just a search box, nothing more, and I’m not going to search for things I don’t even know exist ;) What happened to good old fashioned documentation whose table of contents is actually worth glancing through?

  9. I don’t know about the best UI, but I think the single most time-saving feature that Chrome includes is the automatic creation of search keywords. If you do a search on a website, a keyword for that search bar is automatically stored under the sites URL. For example, if I go to YouTube and conduct a search, a keyword called youtube.com is created. The next time I type in youtube.com, I can press tab to directly search the site without even needing to go to it first! This saves me a LOT of time and it would be really nice if Firefox had a similar feature.

  10. I’d love for firefox to be able to show me what my last searches were, and what pages I visited as a result. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to remember some page I got to via some search I can barely recall. Having the browser keep track of this would be great!

  11. The current searchbar is not easily extensible by extensions. An ideal solution would increase the ability to create features beyond simply adding new q= text splices.

    As a simple example, imagine a search provider that did a google site: search for the current focused tab url.

  12. Basil: If you read this comment, I’d be very curious why Chrome worked so poorly for you, considering that we implement every one of your bullet points except encoding overrides. We let you edit URLs, create multiple entries with the same URL, and easily transfer your search engines between profiles. As an added bonus, if you Import Settings from Firefox, we’ll pull in your existing bookmark keywords as search engine entries so that they still work. Not sure what kept you from discovering all this.

  13. We do have categorizations, both for Firefox and Fennec, guidelines start at https://wiki.mozilla.org/L10n:Productization. We start with en-US plugins in general when taking new locales, but the discussion around which plugins to use is guided by the categorization, en-US is just an example.

    We did a complete check on whether the plugins we ship fit the categorization and are the state of the web with 3.0, too. We haven’t done that since, because it’s a ton of work, but we left the communities with the clear message that changes can happen if there’s a case to be made. All those discussions are in bugzilla, fwiw.

    If you’d like that thing to be more transparent, there can be tons of solutions. Starting from something as easy as to CC you on the bugs we file. Caveat, doing other systems in parallel hasn’t worked out so far, I’d much rather talk about how we handle things in bugzilla so that we can gather the data you’re looking for.

    If you want another round of complete reviews, or a review of the categories, let’s talk about that.

  14. Site-specific search for the domain of the page I am currently looking at is something I frequently wish I could do easily from Firefox.

    I guess I could go to Google and type out “site:http://www.example.com” but I’m lazy.

  15. IMHO, a dedicated search box was one of Firefox’s key differentiators when it first arrived on the scene.

    Like “Eevee” above, I also ‘mash Ctrl-K’ whenever I want to search for something. Typically my Firefox usage for ‘getting places’ consists of hitting Ctrl-T, and then:
    1. Typing a few letters into the AwesomeBar, and pressing Enter (thank you “Enter Selects”)
    2. Pressing Ctrl-K, and then either searching (often with ‘suggestions’ and hitting Ctrl-Down-Arrow and picking another search engine, and then searching.

    Personally, the ability to separate #1 & #2 above is a key reason I prefer Firefox to Chrome. I use AwesomeBar heavily, but also like search suggestions. However, I see absolutely no reason why my AwesomeBar queries should be sent off to Google, which they are with Omnibar in Chrome. If I’m searching, this makes perfect sense…if I’m looking for something on my intranet, it doesn’t.

  16. Some time before, I needed to buy a good house for my organization but I didn’t earn enough money and could not buy anything. Thank heaven my colleague proposed to get the loans from trustworthy creditors. Hence, I acted so and was satisfied with my collateral loan.

  17. It’s great that you’re considering improving this :)

    I’d just like to mention a few things I like about how Firefox’s search works at the moment, things that I would miss sorely if they were not possible any more. Firefox’s better keyword search/quicksearch functionality is a major part of the reason why I use it over Chrome.

    I have more than 20 quicksearch bookmarks, most of them dictionaries (note that one dictionary may have two or more search directions, hence the large number of quickseraches). I use more than of these 10 regularly.

    Unlike Chrome, Firefox allows

    1. manually editing the search URL, thus fine tuning the search options of the site

    2. on the rare occasions when Firefox gets the encoding wrong when using the “Add a keyword for this search…” option, it is possible to correct is manually using &mozcharset= option (essential for me)

    3. it allows adding more than one keyword for the same search (by means of multiple quicksearch bookmarks). This is very convenient when using a dictionary among languages with different scripts. Why switch keyboard layouts just to type the keyword, then switch back? Instead I have a keyword in each of the two scripts.

    4. Quicksearches are simply stored as bookmarks, so they’re transferrable between profiles with relative ease.

    Apart from quicksearches, I do use the search bar too, but I don’t usually switch search engines there. It’s just set to my main search engine all the time.

    Please improve Firefox’s search in such a way that you don’t break these things. I tried using Chrome, and found that it’s simplified search model is infinitely less useful than Firefox’s, especially for consulting dictionaries. In Firefox I can customize quickseraches to work exactly as I want, and I can look up a word in less than a second using the keyboard.

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