Smart Browsers Ease Searching

Smart Browsers Ease Searching

From The Search Engine Report
July 1, 1998

Netscape is promising that the next version of its browser will be bright enough to help users find what they are looking for. "Smart Browsing" will be available in the beta version of Communicator 4.5, to be released sometime in July.

"The idea behind Smart Browsing is that we are trying to add intelligence to the browsing process" Micki Seibel, Netscape Communicator's Senior Product Manager.

One of the best things about the announcement is that it gives a name to features that already exist in both Netscape and Internet Explorer, which will raise awareness of these helpful options.

Netscape's Smart Browsing will initially contain three core components: Internet Keywords, What's Related and NetWatch. The first is a search feature; the second a site discovery tool, and the third is a filtering mechanism.

With Internet Keywords, you can enter search terms into the Location area of the browser and be taken to relevant pages.

You can already see this in action using Communicator 4. Enter any phrase that is two words or longer, and you'll receive results from Netscape's Excite-powered search engine. Similarly, you can perform one-word searches by prefacing the word with either a ? symbol or the word "go," such as "? cars" or "go cars."

The same functionality has been present in Internet Explorer since the IE3 release. It works exactly the same as described above in both IE3 and IE4, and results come from Yahoo, by default.

Those who have installed the Windows 95 or Windows 98 Tweak UI applet can switch the default to another service via the drop down box in the Internet Explorer section of the General tab. Oddly, both versions of Tweak UI still include services such as the now defunct Open Text Index or Infoseek Ultra, which has long been absorbed into the main Infoseek service.

So what's new about Netscape's Internet Keywords? For one, there will be an option to disable Netscape's auto-completion attempts. This is another existing feature in both the Netscape and Microsoft browsers that remains unknown to some users.

With auto-completion, a browser will attempt to add missing portions of a URL in order to reach a site. For example, enter "www.website.com," and both browsers will transform this to "http://www.website.com." So save your fingers and stop entering those http:// prefixes!

Likewise, if you leave off the .com suffix, the browsers will add them or rotate through other options, such as .net. Unlike the http:// prefix, it's best to add the correct suffix, if you know it. Otherwise, you could end up at the wrong site.

Disabling auto-completion is important, because it will allow users to use the Location box the way they use the search box at search engines. There will be no need to prefix one-word searches, as described above. Instead, users can just enter anything into the box, hit return and get results similar to using a search engine.

The results won't be exactly the same as using a search engine, however. There will be a series of "reserve names" that will take users directly to a web site. For example, entering "Amazon" might take users to the Amazon.com web site, while entering Barnes & Noble might take them to that bookseller's site.

Isn't this what RealNames is supposed to do? Yes, the ideas are virtually identical. Users can enter words, rather than URLs, to reach the sites they are looking for. The difference is that Netscape doesn't plan to charge companies to be listed in its reserve word database, which currently has about one million entries, Seibel said.

Instead, editors will add terms to the database, and site owners can also request to be added for free. Seibel expects that there will be some type of formal submission process after the new system goes live.

Another key difference is that Netscape will resolve generic terms. Enter something like "autos," and you'll be taken to a relevant page with Netscape Netcenter. In contrast, RealNames will not register a generic phrase to any particular site.

Netscape also plans to resolve some generic and semi-generic terms to particular sites outside of Netcenter. For example, "white house" would take you to the US White House site, under Netscape's plan.

An innovative feature is the eventual introduction of international sets of reserve words. This would be an excellent way of solving the problem of companies in different countries having the same name. Enter "ford" into Netscape's US-edition browser, and you would be taken to the Ford US site. Do the same using its UK-edition browser, and you might be taken to the Ford UK site.

Many searches won't match the Netscape's reserve word database, of course. In these cases, users will be presented with matching pages from the Netscape search engine, as happens now.

Does this mean RealNames has no hope of getting built into future Netscape browsers, a key strategy of that company's plans? Netscape says its Smart Browsing doesn't preclude working with third parties, and RealNames says discussions are on going. So, wait and see.

What's Related is the second component of Netscape's Smart Browsing. It's a site discovery feature based on technology from Alexa. A small drop down box next to the Location box will list sites that have content similar to the site currently being visited.

Netscape's What's Related database is built in partnership with Alexa, but the results will not be exactly the same as those presented by Alexa's own software. Instead, Netscape will be adding its own editorial suggestions and enhancements, Seibel said.

Meanwhile, IE4 users can enjoy a similar What's Related integration and more via a new 45K Alexa download that seamlessly adds Alexa features to the browser. For more details, see the separate article on the Alexa 2.0 release.

Finally, the NetWatch component of Smart Browsing will allow parents, teachers or others to configure the browser so that it cannot reach sites with possibly objectionable material, based on PICS ratings. A similar feature is available in Internet Explorer, via the Internet Options menu. Choose the "Security" tag in IE3 or the "Content" tag in IE4, then select the Content Advisor section.

Netscape Communicator 4.5 Home Page
http://home.netscape.com/communicator/v4.5/

Alexa 2.0 for IE4
http://www.alexa.com/ie40/

Windows Power Toys - Tweak UI
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/downloads/contents/powertoys/w95tweakui/