The latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser has a number of search features that can make finding information easier. Some of these may not be readily apparent, and so I thought a tour of these would be helpful.
The easiest way to get started searching with Internet Explorer 5 is to click on the Search button in the toolbar. Doing so divides the main content window into two sections. The left section is called the Search Pane, and this is where the Search Assistant will load. The Search Assistant allows you to search for web pages, email addresses, businesses and maps. Clicking on the More link expands the Search Assistant to include encyclopedia and newsgroup searching.
The Search Assistant defaults to a web page search, which will be done by one of Microsoft's premiere search providers. There are five of these: AltaVista, GoTo, Infoseek, Lycos and Microsoft's own MSN Search. The very first time you use Explorer, one of the services will be selected and remains your default choice from that point on, unless you customize your settings.
This is in sharp contrast to how the Search Pane worked in Internet Explorer 4, where the search engine selection constantly changed. Microsoft abandoned this with IE5 so that users wouldn't get confused by a continually rotating search choice.
"Before, it was like Russian roulette. What am I going to get today?" said Bill Bliss, general manager of MSN Search.
It's a good move. I think many users of both Explorer and Netscape Communicator have no idea why the search partner changes when they click on the respective search buttons -- indeed, some don't even realize the partner is changing. The IE5 change allows Microsoft to give its partners a shot at its users without confusing those users in the process.
As I noted, the Search Assistant remains ready for a web search when you open the Search Pane. You'll see a search box at the bottom of the assistant, with text above it that says "Find a Web page containing." Below the box is text that tells you which search engine was selected for you. For instance, if AltaVista was the choice, it says, "Brought to you by AltaVista."
To search, enter your terms and push the search button below the search box. The Search Assistant will disappear from the Search Pane and be replaced by your search results. Then when you click on a listing from the results, the page loads into the right-hand section. In this way, you can view your search results and actual web pages simultaneously. It's a great feature for those who hate having to go back and forth.
Because the Search Pane is relatively small, it can be hard reading all the results. However, if you hover the mouse icon over any particular listing in the Search Pane, a pop-up box will appear that displays the entire listing information.
Once you've done a search, you can easily rerun that search using another search engine. Just click on the Next button that appears at the top of the Search Pane. This will send the query to the next search engine on the list, which you see if you click on the small down arrow button next to the Next button. Or, select the down arrow button, then highlight the exact search engine you wish to query from the list.
Performing a new search is easy. Just click on the New button, which also appears at the top of the Search Pane. The Search Assistant will reload into the pane.
The Search Assistant also remembers the past things you've searched for. Do a few searches, then click on the New button. Then change the Search Assistant setting from "Find a Web page" to "Previous searches." You'll be shown up to 10 past searches you've performed, in the form of hyperlinks. Clicking on a link brings back the search results from your browser cache. You can clear these by selecting the "Clear" button.
You can customize the Search Assistant by selecting the Customize button, located at the top of the Search Pane. This makes the Customize Search Settings window appear. By default, the Use Search Assistant radio button is selected.
You'll see sections in the customize window that correspond to different aspects of the Search Assistant. The "Find a Web page" section comes first, and this is where you can override the default search engine setting. Various search engines appear in a list box. Choose the service you want to use by default and move it to the top of the list using the small arrow buttons below the list box. You can also use these arrows to move any service up or down in the list. This list is linked to the Next button, which I described earlier. So by moving services around, you can control the order in which the Next button selects services.
Next to the list box, you'll also see search engines listed with small checkboxes next to their names. Unchecking a box removes a service from the list, while checking a box adds it to the list. Since the Customize page is delivered from the Microsoft web server, you may see more search engines appear as options over time.
When you are happy with your changes, click on the OK button at the bottom of the page. FYI, the Reset button will restore the Search Assistant's default settings. That includes removing the encyclopedia and newsgroup search options, if you had enabled these by clicking on the More link mentioned above.
Don't like the Search Assistant? You can remove it by clicking on the Customize button, then selecting the "Use one search service for all searches option." Pick your preferred search engine, and that will be the only one that appears in the Search Pane. If you change your mind and want the Search Assistant back, use the Customize button and chose the "Use Search Assistant" option.
Everything above covers traditional searching in the sense of going to a search engine and entering queries. But you can also search from the address field of the browser, using a system that Microsoft calls "Autosearch." This corresponds to the Internet Keyword system that Netscape introduced last year in its browser, or to the RealNames system that relates registered words to web pages.
Make a point of trying Autosearch. The results are very good, especially for popular queries. That's because Microsoft has preprogrammed responses for about 40,000 queries.
Searching with Autosearch is easy. Just enter your search terms into the area where you would normally enter a web address and hit Enter or click on the Go button. By default, a list of matching results will appear in the Search Pane. These come from Microsoft's Autosearch search engine, not from its MSN Search service. Autosearch will also load what it believes to be the best web page automatically into the main content window.
"If you type something in that's ambiguous, we'll try to take you to the best resource. If you don't type in something ambiguous, we'll take you right there," said Eric Berman, Group Program Manager for MSN Search.
So if you enter "white house" into the address field, the US White House home page will be displayed as a top pick in the Search Pane, along with other related links, while the White House page itself will be displayed in the content window. MSN editors have linked this particular site to those words.
Autosearch can operate in other ways, all of which are controlled by clicking on the aforementioned Customize button at the top of the Search Pane. When the Customize Search Settings page appears, click on the Autosearch settings button at the bottom of the page. MSN will be shown as your search provider, and the "When searching" option will be set to "Display results, and go to the most likely site."
You can change this option to "Just go to the most likely site," which in the example above, would have taken you to the White House site and never opened the Search Pane to show other options. The "Just display results in the main window" would have shown you matching Autosearch results in a single window, without taking you to the top site. Finally, the "Do not search from the Address bar" would have shut off the Autosearch feature entirely -- although I found that if I then entered search term into the address field to test this, Autosearch magically restored itself to the default setting.
You can also choose to have another provider give you search results via the address field. For instance, change the search provider option from MSN to Excite. Now you can enter some terms, and results from the Excite search engine will be displayed. Most of the major search services are listed as options, as is the RealNames service.
This is the first time RealNames has had the presence it wanted in a major browser. Previously, users could only get RealNames functionality by downloading a program to enhance their browser (the NeoPlanet browser does have support built-in). Obviously, usage will still be limited because RealNames is not the default choice, but it does make it easier for this to happen in the future.
MSN does not have programmed Autosearch results for every search topic, of course. You'll know when generic answers are provided, because instead of displaying a "Top Pick," the Search Pane will instead inform you that it's doing a "Web Address Search."
When this happens, Autosearch will usually try to find a page to automatically load by condensing your words and appending .com or other common endings, a system Microsoft calls "Autoscan." For instance, entering "cars" brings up http://www.cars.com, while "used cars" is condensed into one word and brings up http://www.usedcars.com/.
You'll also be presented with other possible matches in the Search Pane. Most of this information comes from the LookSmart database that MSN has licensed. However, you won't find that the search exactly matches the same search at LookSmart because MSN is using its own search algorithm to retrieve results. Some special MSN information is also mixed in.
An obvious concern webmasters will have is how to become a top pick or be listed within Autosearch matches. Unfortunately, there is no formal mechanism to request consideration. Bliss recommended webmasters use the MSN feedback page to let team members know if they feel a site would be a good top pick.
Some important notes if you try searching from the address field. You'll discover some words are ignored when you use them to start your query, in particular "search" and "find." For instance, if you look for "search engines," you'll really only be searching for "engines." You'll need to search for "search search engines" in order to keep the word search in your query.
This happens because old versions of Explorer had Autosearch functionality only when you used words like "search," "go," "find" or the ? symbol. Autosearch will show you want it looked for in the search pane, so look closely, and you'll know if a term is accidentally omitted.
You may need to use one of the terms above if you want to use Autosearch and are behind a proxy server. This is because a single word search may fail if the browser tries to resolve the word into a local server name. Start your queries search, find, go or the ? symbol as a workaround to this problem. Or, go to Internet Options, select the Connections tab, click on the LAN Settings button, then check the Bypass proxy server for local addresses option.
IE5 also has some Alexa functionality built into it. Click on the Tools menu, then select Show Related Links. You will see pages that the Alexa service thinks are related to the page you are viewing, along with an archived version of the page, if it's available.
Here's a good tip from Windows Magazine. You can have Related Links as an option on your toolbar, rather than having to hunt for it via the menu. Go to the View menu option, choose Toolbars, then Customize. Then click on Related from the list of available buttons and click on Add. Now when you click on Related, the Related Links information will appear in the Search Pane.
Alexa provides more information than just related pages, but you'll need to install the full Alexa product to get this. This is easy and free to do, through a fast download at the Alexa site. It upgrades IE5 automatically in about one minute.
Finally, but far from least, Internet Explorer 5 provides the ability to save searches done at the MSN Search service. MSN Search is the first major search service to offer this ability, and it's something professional researchers have long wanted.
It's a slick implementation. Do a search as MSN Search, and if you have IE5, you'll see small disk icons appear next to each listing. If you click on an icon, it saves the link. This information is then available on the Saved Results page.
To get to that page, go to the MSN Search home page, and you'll see an option called "Saved Results" in the reverse bar above the search box. When the page appears, you see any listings you've saved grouped by the search terms you used.
The feature only works with IE5, and it's important to note that the information is not being stored at the MSN Search site itself. Instead, it's all kept on your own hard drive. In fact, if you have the Saved Results page cached, you can access your pages without going back to the MSN Search site.
Here's are some last tips for IE5 that you may find useful:
Need to get to the address field in a hurry to do a search or enter a URL? Use Alt-D to jump right there.
Want to add http:// and .com to an address quickly? Type in the main part of the address, then hold down Control and push the Enter key. For instance, enter "nike," then hit Control-Enter, and the word is transformed into http://www.nike.com.
Enter the name of one of your Favorites into the address box, and you'll be taken right to the site you've bookmarked. For instance, say you have a personal homepage bookmarked as "My Page" in your Favorites list. Type in "My Page," and you'll be taken to the address you've saved, assuming the link is at the top level of your Favorites, not with a subfolder.
Did you know you can search for text in past pages you've visited? Click on the History button, then click on the Search button that will appear at the top of the Search Pane. A search box will appear. Enter your query, and any pages in your browser cache containing those words will be listed.
Internet Explorer 5
Download a copy from here.
IE5 Web Accessories
The Lockergnome newsletter, http://www.lockergnome.com, is a must for Windows users and brought IE5 Web Accessories to my attention. They configure special codes that let you query any search engine from the address field. For instance, "av travel" would send the query "travel" to AltaVista (I found this conflicted with IE5 Autosearch, but you may have more luck). You can also highlight any word on a page, then send that to a default search engine (it's currently Yahoo, and there's no customize option). The Web Developer Accessories, available from this same page, allow you to highlight words on a web page, then view the exact source code for that text. You can also download the full Alexa product via this page or the AltaVista Power Tools, described below.
AltaVista Power Tools
AltaVista Power Tools let you highlight any term on a web page, right-click with your mouse, and then send the text to AltaVista for a web search. You also get instant access to the Babel Fish page translation service, and menu options to do a link or host search via AltaVista for any page you are viewing.
Got IE5? Try Saved Results here.
Think your site is suitable as a top pick for the Autosearch system? Try sending feedback via this page.
RealNames Ramps Up
The Search Engine Report, Feb. 2, 1999
More information about RealNames can be found in this recent article, which also links to further background information.
Smart Browsers Ease Searching
The Search Engine Report, July 1, 1998
Learn more about how Autosearch and other search assistance features work in older versions of Internet Explorer.
Alexa: Searching Serendipity And More
The Search Engine Report, Jan. 9, 1998
More about information provided by the Alexa service.
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