Hard as it may be to believe, it's been nearly eight years since Newsweek proclaimed "The Year of the Internet." When the Web was in its infancy, the word "browser" was synonymous with Mosaic, and then later Netscape. Today, if you're like most people, browser means Internet Explorer. Regardless of your particular interpretation of Microsoft's competitive stance, it's hard to deny the company's success in bundling the browser with the operating system.
But with that bundling comes a curious phenomenon: Most users accept their browsers "as is," without any enhancements whatsoever. Yet there is now a wide array of ways to boost your browser experience. Not only will these enhancements make your browsing a more positive experience, they will likely save you considerable time.
The Current Browser Market: Guess Which Is Top Dog?
Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) commands about three quarters of the overall browser market in the United States, with Netscape grabbing the next 10 to 15 percent. (The remainder is split primarily between two organizations, Mozilla and Opera.) What's perhaps most interesting is that the most popular version of IE is IE 6, which has been out for slightly more than a year. By contrast, the most popular version of Netscape is Netscape 3, which was released in 1996.
As a result, most browser enhancements tend to focus on the IE market first and the Netscape market second. From a practical perspective, there is a much larger market for IE enhancements-and more mature browsers tend to support a wider variety of methods for improving the browser.
Fortunately, however, all hope is not lost. Let's examine the available options depending on your browser and its version number, starting with toolbars.
Yahoo Companion Toolbar-Plus Lookups and Bookmarks
IE 4.x and later, Netscape 4.x and later
With the Yahoo Companion toolbar, at http://companion.yahoo.com, you get to add the power of Yahoo's search engine, index and a few other features-right inside your browser. Having the Yahoo search bar right up front is nice. It means that regardless of where you are in your browser, you can instantly search Yahoo for any content in which you're interested. But it goes much further. If, for example, you want to search a dictionary or thesaurus, you can do so from the same toolbar. (In the search box, click on the down arrow and select the resource you want to use.)
Other powerful features of the Yahoo Companion toolbar include stock quote lookups, movie times, news searches and the ability to search their photo archives. Probably most useful for me is the ability to have the Yahoo Companion toolbar make all of my shared bookmarks available.
Because I use several computers (one at home, a laptop at work and any number of shared Internet computers while on the road), I am often away from "my" browser with my bookmarks. Yahoo allows me to keep a set of bookmarks available and accessible from any computer. To set up this feature, go to http://bookmarks.yahoo.com, and then enable Yahoo Bookmarks on your Companion toolbar. (And if you share your computer with multiple people, all they have to do is sign in to the Companion toolbar with their Yahoo ID and password, and they'll get their bookmarks instead of yours.)
Google Toolbar-Plus Special Queries and Demographics
IE 5.x and later
If you're a Google addict and you're not using the Google toolbar, you're missing out on at least half of Google's power. Find it at http://toolbar.google.com. Like the Yahoo Companion toolbar, the Google toolbar provides instant access to the search engine regardless of where you are in your browser. But you also get the ability to search any of Google's services-not just its Web index, but also Google Groups (a 20-year archive of Usenet), Google Images, Google Answers and Google News.
Once you've done a search, you can have the Google toolbar highlight your search terms on any destination page you've visited. In long Web pages, this is an absolute lifesaver. Also, once you're at a site, you can revise your query in the search box and then click on Search Site. Google will then restrict your search only to the site you're currently visiting.
The Google toolbar also gives you some valuable demographic data about a site when you visit-including the site's Google PageRank (Google's proprietary algorithm for evaluating a site's importance) and its Page Info. Page Info includes the ability to see a cached version of the site. (Google maintains local copies of all sites it crawls, so you can see if a Web page's content has been changed since Google visited the site last.) Plus, Page Info includes links to "Similar Pages" (Google establishes similarity by looking for common phrases and link patterns) and "Backward Links" (which tells you who has linked to this site).
For a Little More Punch: Other Toolbars
Using the same concept, other sites provide toolbars that can be added to your browser. Here are some handy ones.
- Merriam-Webster: www.m-w.com/tools/toolbar (which provides the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Thesaurus and Word of the Day). You can use it with IE 5.x and later.
- Nutshell: www.torrez.org/projects/nutshell (which provides easy access to Google, Amazon, Dictionary.com, Internet Movie Database and Daypop). You can use it with IE 5.5 and later.
- Teoma: http://sp.ask.com/docs/teoma/toolbar (which is a strong competitor to Google's search engine and also includes an "e-mail page to a friend" function). You can use it with IE 5.x and later.
- Girafa: www.girafa.com/index.acr?c=1 (which provides a search toolbar and lets you see thumbnails of search results before visiting sites). You can use it with IE 4.x and later.
One advantage to bookmarklets over toolbars is that bookmarklets are supported by just about every major browser available. So if your browser of choice is Opera or Netscape, you're still in luck.
There is an entire collection of bookmarklets at www.bookmarklets.com. Once you find a bookmarklet you like, simply drag the link to your Links toolbar. (If you don't see one, follow the instructions at the site to enable it.) That's it-you're all set. Now you'll have a button in your browser that corresponds to the function assigned by the bookmarklet. For example, if you used the "More Info About" bookmarklet, you can now highlight some text and click on that button. Once clicked, it populates a Web page with the text you highlighted, allowing you to visit various search engines based on your query.
For other good resources for bookmarklets, visit Google or Yahoo and search on that term.
Wanted: More Power Tools
Browser enhancements like these can make your Web work user-friendlier and save you some time (which translates into money) in the process. So let's hope that the range of options continues to expand. Do you know of a browser power tool not mentioned here? Be sure to send me an e-mail and let me know so I can share it with other readers!
Rick Klau ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Vice President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc., and a co-author of the ABA LPM book The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd edition). His blog is at www.rklau.com/tins.