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Searching Via Internet Explorer 7 & The Battle To Be The Default Search Engine

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Internet Explorer 7 Logo

Now that Internet Explorer 7 has been released in final format, I wanted to look at how search is being handled within the browser. There's been lots of discussion and worries about this in the past. Speculation time is over; reality is here. In this article, how the IE7 search box works, how you can change it and how Google and Yahoo's toolbars behave within it to try and maintain their default status, once gained.

The biggest difference with Internet Explorer 7 is the one that's been most discussed, a visible search box built into the "chrome." In the picture below, you can see the search box, complete with the word "Google" in light text to remind me what search engine is my default.

061019-box

(NOTE: I've used a lot of screenshots, drawing off my Flickr account and picked a day when Flickr has became sluggish after I wrote this. Apologies if the pictures don't show when you view the page. Try reloading or checking back).

Google is my default search engine because it was that way in Internet Explorer 6. It became my default there with my permission, when I installed the Google Toolbar on my laptop (where I did today's testing) ages ago.

I removed the Google Toolbar for the purposes of testing IE7. That didn't cause the IE6 default settings to change, and to Microsoft's credit, they didn't try to override it when I upgraded to IE7.

Microsoft had previously said that if it detected a particular search engine was set to be a default, it would respect that. So, IE7 did -- sort of. Notice however what comes up in the main window of Internet Explorer 7 when I relaunched it:

061019-settings

Here, I'm notified that Google's my default, and I'm asked to confirm this or make another choice. Overall, I think that's fine. Yes, it's Microsoft hoping to change some minds. Maybe "Keep my current default search provider" should be ticked already. But I'd say most people who have Google as their default now will confirm keeping it that way. It's hardly anti-competitive.

Google, in particular, has disagreed. On a new machine, where Google has no presence or partnership, Microsoft Live Search will be the default. Google had suggested that users should be explicitly asked to make a choice from one of several providers. In my past article about this, I wrote about not being sympathetic to that idea, given that Google has had no problem paying to override consumer choice to gain the default position through deals with Firefox or through Dell installations.

Since then, deals have only accelerated. Yahoo partnered with Acer and also with HP. Google cut a deal with Adobe. It's difficult to know how a consumer is going to buy a "virgin" machine where the defaults haven't already been decided or influenced by some business deal.

Given this, let's focus on how consumers can make their choices after the fact. That's pretty easy. From that opening screen that IE gives after installation, tick the "Let me select from a list of other search providers" option and then choose Save Settings at the bottom of the page.

That will brings up this page (other pages might come up for other language/country configurations):

061019-choices

Very fairly, Microsoft isn't positioning themselves at the top of the list or more prominently than others. In fact, I think Microsoft is making a terrible mistake by just saying "Live Search" rather than "Microsoft Live Search." I think relatively few people know the Live brand right now. I can well imagine some people thinking, "Live Search -- what's that?" and skipping the search engine from consideration.

I selected Live Search from the list. That made a pop-up box appear:

Add Search Provider Confirmation Window In IE7

Notice the option to make the choice as my default is NOT ticked. This allows you to add several search engines to the search box, which you can then selectively use while still maintaining your default search engine. You can add a bunch of different providers, and I'll come back to this more below.

It's worth noting that the Search Provider page links to information about the OpenSearch system, a way for anyone to easily create search engines that can be added to IE7. Of course, that doesn't mean you get added to the all-important Search Provider page. It just means someone visiting your site might be able to use a button that you promote to them to change their IE7 settings.

That Search Provider page also has an interesting box allowing you to visit any search engine, then do a copy-and-paste action to make your own search box. It's very clever. You simply search for TEST on anything that gives you a search box. Copy-and-paste the resulting URL, and IE7 will automatically create the right way to access that search engine for you. I added Search Engine Watch as a search engine to my IE7 installation easily by doing this.

In the example above, I didn't change my default search provider. Now let's say I want to, perhaps some time after I've initially installed IE7. Google has previous spun the idea of changing settings in IE7 as some complicated task. It even cited research saying only one third of users could figure it out. I have more faith that people can do it, so let's go through the steps.

  1. Click the Tools button in IE7's menu, then pick Internet Options
     
  2. On the General tab of the Internet Options window that appears, there's a Search area. Click on the Settings button here.
     
  3. That brings up a Change Search Defaults menu:

    Change Search Defaults Window In IE7

    (FYI, I wish the "Find more providers" link was much more visible here. If you didn't pick more providers from when IE was initially installed, you won't have any choices in the main selection area -- and you might miss that link. This is handled in a better way through an alternative method I'll cover below).
     
  4. Choose the search engine you want, push the Set Default button, then OK. Now you're done.

Well, not necessarily. After I did this, Google was shown as my choice within the search box in the chrome. Evil Google! No, it seems more an IE thing. When I closed and restarted IE7, the default was changed to Live Search.

Let's go back to that search box in the chrome. Obviously, you can use it to search. Enter some words, hit return or click the magnifying glass icon/button, and the browser will pull back results from your default search engine.

The box also allows you to temporarily or permanently change your default search provider. Next to the box, use the down-arrow to get a drop-down menu like this:

Drop-Down Menu In IE7 Search Box

From it, any search engine you've added to your providers list is shown. You can see how several providers I've selected are added, including the custom choice I made for Search Engine Watch.

Choose a provider, and then your search will go to that provider for that particular search, similar to how the box in Firefox works. It stays this way until you change it back or until you close IE7 entirely.

Look at the bottom of the menu. The drop-down box lets you get to the IE7 search providers page or bring up the Change Search Defaults box I showed in step 3 above. That makes changing providers a two step process.

Next up, I wanted to see how the search engines competing with Microsoft were reacting to a freshly minted copy of IE7 showing up at their doorsteps. Would I get prompts to change, as we've seen in the past from both Google and Yahoo?

Google and Yahoo surprisingly did nothing. I wonder if this might because the final release of IE7 has made some type of browser agent change that the two have set to identify. We'll see. Meanwhile, Ask gave me this box enticing me to change:

Ask Asking IE7 Users To Switch

Next up, time to deal with concerns that Google might be too aggressive in protecting itself once installed as the default via the Google Toolbar. I loaded up a fresh copy. In short order, Google asked me if I wanted to make it both my default search provider and notify me if something tries to change that:

Google Toolbar Asking For Default Permission

To help avoid controversy, Google ought to make these separate options. But from a usability perspective, I can well understand the logic of making then a single choice. If I want Google to be my default, I probably don't want something to try and change that behind my back -- and many have had bad experiences with adware and spyware doing exactly that.

I told it Google fine, then I was surprised that the next screen made me decide whether to have PageRank display enabled or not.

Google Toolbar Asking For PageRank Decision

In the past, I recall this as an option you were never prompted to enable. Instead, I recall it as something that search engine optimization folks (about the only ones who care) would enable by diving into the advanced options and switching it on.

I could be wrong in my recollection. If so, my apologies. But even with Google's clear "in your face" warning that enabling PageRank will send data to them, I still wonder if perhaps the screen should be different.

Maybe PageRank display should be disabled by default, rather than making you choose. The screen that appears would then ask explicitly if you wanted to change to enabled. It would explain what it provides to the user (the screen itself tells you nothing, not even a short description such as here). It would then warn, as it does now, that enabling the feature allows Google to see every page you are visiting.

All installed, Google gives me a big notice to let me know I'm ready to go with the toolbar:

Google Toolbar's Hello I'm Here Page

I then tried to change search providers using the steps above. That seemed to work, but then I got this small notification in my task bar, along with an audible signal:

Google Toolbar Warning It Blocked A Default Change

My task bar is at the top of the screen (where it belongs, in my opinion!). By default, the task bar is at the bottom of Windows machines by default, so the notification could be less noticeable there. The sound helps, but frankly I don't know why this was blocked at all.

There's a big difference between spyware changing your default setting and users themselves trying to change the default using the options within Internet Explorer. Google ought to be able to distinguish the two. Changes made by a user shouldn't be blocked. Moreover, any blocking ought to ask me for confirmation that it's going to happen, not just be done on my behalf.

In other words, consider this. I'd consented for Google to notify me if something was trying to change my default settings, as shown on that earlier screenshot. I did not consent to it doing the blocking on my behalf, which is what it did. It would have been far better if Google had produced some type of pop-up box telling me that something wanted to change my defaults and asking me if I wanted to allow this. Leave the choice with me.

I'll follow-up with Google about this. Meanwhile, what to do if you want to override the decision Google made for you? When that notification happens, you have to click on the little G button in your task bar (if the notification is gone, try changing again to make it come back). Clicking on the G brings up a box like this:

Google Toolbar Window Allowing For Default Change In IE7

That box is what I think Google should actually show you, rather than processing it behind the scenes unless you manually make it appear. It tells you something wants to change your default, asks if you want to allow that to happen and lets you override what Google wants to do, remain the default, if that's your decision.

If you override, that should disable Google from doing any future monitoring, as it tells you will be the case:

Google Toolbar Default Override Setting In IE7

That's what I found to happen. In fact, I see no signs that Google is still monitoring despite being told not to. That's what happened in July, when the GoogleToolbarNotifier.exe program continued to run. Google said this was a bug, which got some dubious laughs in some quarters. Bug or not, I certainly don't see it happening now.

To further test it, I went back to Ask.com and let it make it my default search provider. That worked fine.

Once you've disabled monitoring, what if you want it back? Use the Settings menu of the Google Toolbar, then on the More tab, you'll see two options:

Options To Control Google Monitoring In IE7

The two different options intrigued me. What was the difference between:

  • Set and keep Search settings to Google
    • Notify me on settings change

I enabled only the first. Bad, bad choice. If you do this, you simply cannot change your settings at all unless you go back into the Google Toolbar and override the option. Google will silently keep any settings from being altered. If you enable them both, then you get back to the behavior where at least Google will give you a notification.

Overall, here's what I'd like to see. The Google Toolbar should ask if you want to be notified about changes. If something tries to make a change, it should then ask you for explicit permission whether to override this, at least the first time -- perhaps it gives you an option to let Google handle these changes without notifications behind the scenes after that. But yes -- get in the users face more about what you're going to change initially, so they know what's going on.

Having played with Google, I next loaded up the Yahoo Toolbar. Ugh, not fun. First, Yahoo by default wants to cram Norton Spyware scan down your throat. Yes, right under the big Download Yahoo! Toolbar button in smaller text is an option to get just the toolbar without it. I'd rather see that option get equal play.

After the installation, like Google, Yahoo stands ready to be both my default search engine and help me get back to Yahoo if something changes my default settings:

Yahoo Toolbar's Let Us Monitor IE7 Page

Like Google, Yahoo makes it clear you've got the toolbar with this big pop-up window:

Yahoo Toolbar's Hello I'm Here Page

Decide to personalize the toolbar, as Yahoo suggests? To do that, you've got to have a Yahoo account. That means the toolbar does more than drive searches for Yahoo. Unlike Google, Yahoo's trying to generate user registrations, as well. The toolbar works without registration, of course -- but it no doubt encourages some people to sign up.

I manually changed my default provider from Yahoo to Google, using the steps above. Yahoo didn't block this. But when I closed the browser and relaunched it, I got this:

Yahoo Toolbar Warning Defaults Have Changed

Fair enough. Unlike Google, Yahoo didn't silently switch itself back. It asked me to make that choice. It was also a one time thing. I told it to allow the change, then closed my browser and reopened it. Yahoo didn't come back and try to get me to switch back to Yahoo again.

Actually, I wouldn't have minded that. I find it very helpful that Firefox or Internet Explorer will keep asking me if I want them as a default unless I explicitly use the offered tick box not to be asked again. That's because it's easy to accidentally hit the wrong button. It's harder to both hit the wrong button and enable a tick box.

All this effort by the toolbars to maintain default status comes off the fear that the IE7 search box is going to somehow gain Microsoft tons of search traffic. I've been pessimistic about this actually happening. I've noted for ages that despite Microsoft long having hooks into IE for its own search, Google and Yahoo have both survived and thrived. My Google Worried About Microsoft's Browser Advantage? What Advantage? article goes into much more depth about this.

It's uncertain to me that the search box in the "chrome" is going to make that much of a difference, but I haven't seen much user behavior data here. I could be completely wrong, and Microsoft's competitors are certainly worried about it. We'll know in short order. IE7 is being rolled out in a mandatory fashion to Windows users beginning November 1 through the Windows update system. If Microsoft's search share rises, the chrome search box may be working.

However, I think many people will still fire up their browser and go back to the search engines they regularly use. Google and Yahoo might not have the enticements to switchover today up, but those will come. And I think those will help them to largely preserve their shares despite the IE7 rollout.


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