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


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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