Browser-Based Searching

Everyone knows Internet Explorer lets you navigate the Web. Did you know Microsoft’s popular browser has search capabilities built in?

Searching the Web and navigating the Web are not synonymous. Though often confused, they are different behaviors. It’s worth exploring the two concepts to better understand how IE, as primarily a navigation tool, may be helpful for search needs.

Search Versus Navigation

When someone searches the Web, he often has no predetermined destination in mind. He might enter “books” into a search engine to find an online bookseller. He gets a list of possible destinations, which will likely include Amazon.com From this list, he may choose to visit Amazon or another choice.

When someone navigates the Web, she has a specific location in mind. She may wish to reach Amazon. If she knows Amazon’s URL, she can enter it into the browser and go to the site. If she doesn’t recall the URL, she may search to locate it. A search was performed, but the intent was navigational. She wanted to reach Amazon — a specific destination.

Search and navigation are different behaviors, yet search engines are used to do both. This means a good search engine can handle search and navigation requests. Google’s popularity is in large part due to the fact it is also a good “navigation engine.” Its ability to find the right site when a user can’t recall how to reach the site directly is excellent.

As Google does double-duty, so does IE. The browser primarily fulfills navigation requests. People wanting to reach a site enter a URL into the address bar which is “resolved” to find the destination. People also use the address bar to search the Web.

To understand how IE performs both navigation and search, let’s explore what happens when its address bar is used in various situations. I’ll discuss the operation of the latest version, Internet Explorer 6, though much of what’s discussed applies to IE 5 as well.

The Microsoft Domain Name System

In old browsers, anything you put into the address bar was passed on to the Internet’s “domain name system” (DNS) to help reach a site. If you entered amazon.com, DNS would look up to see where the “amazon.com” Web site was located on the Internet and feed the location to your browser.

IE uses DNS, but it also performs other checks to best handle what’s entered into the address bar. So many checks are performed that, in some ways, Microsoft operates its own DNS, incorporating “normal” DNS and more.

Say you enter a valid domain name, such as “amazon.com.” This makes IE check DNS for a site with that name. If it exists, you’re sent to it. What happens if you enter a domain name with no site, such as “books.com”? DNS can’t “resolve” it.

With no site, DNS tells IE a site can’t be found. IE tells the user this, but adds information it thinks will help locate the site. It may suggest “similar” sites, those with domain names akin to what was entered.

IE also provides links to sites it thinks may be related to the site you wanted. “Related” links are the top answers you’d get if you’d searched for the name on the MSN Search service. You’ll be shown “Featured” sites, which may include ad listings along with editorial results.

There was some stink when Microsoft moved to this new system of enhanced “Web site not found” pages last fall, from the old method of simply saying a site couldn’t be located.

This seemed unfair. It’s far more useful to have the browser make suggestions than leave the user wondering what he’s done wrong. Nor, as was suggested, did the change replace the “page not found” or “404 error” received when a page can’t be found within a valid operating site.

Dealing With Words

Sometimes people enter words in a browser’s address bar rather than formatted domain names. They might type “amazon” or “hotmail,” failing to add “.com” or “www.” Depending on the words entered, IE will help users navigate to a particular Web site with the aid of the RealNames system or provide answers from MSN Search.

Do people know entering real words into the address bar can search the Web? At first they don’t — but Microsoft thinks those who try quickly learn about the functionality built into the address bar.

“I think it is valid to assume that users discover you can do searches by accident or because someone tells them, and the reason I assume that is because we’ve never gone out of our way to make [the functionality] obvious,” said MSN Search General Manager Bill Bliss.

RealNames Factor and MSN Search

When ordinary words are entered into the address bar, IE’s first line of defense is to check the RealNames system. RealNames is a long-standing Web site address system using real words, called “Internet Keywords,” to link to Web pages.

When ordinary words are entered in IE, the RealNames database is checked. Say you entered “amazon books.” IE would see these words registered by Amazon as keywords in the RealNames system and direct you to the Web site.

The same is true for “wells fargo bank,” “american airlines,” or “barnes and noble.” These names resolve to the company Web sites, through agreements with RealNames.

For popular generic terms, MSN treats requests as search rather than navigation actions. The query is sent to MSN Search, not RealNames.

The IE address bar is a built-in connection to MSN Search. Just as those who use the Google Toolbar can query Google without going to the site, the IE address bar can query MSN Search. It’s a good search engine, too.

IE’s address bar can even be configured to query the search engine of your choice.

The IE Search Pane

IE gives you greater search functionality with its “Search Companion,” available to those running IE 6 on Windows XP.

To get the Search Companion, push IE’s search button (a magnifying glass in the IE 6 toolbar). This splits the browser window in two. The left side is the narrow “Search Companion” portion that asks, “What are you looking for?”

A query causes results from MSN Search to appear in the right window. Meanwhile, the left Search Companion window displays specialty search “tasks,” as I’ll call them, and sponsored listings.

A search for “cars” in the Search Companion fills the lower half of the companion window with “Sponsored Links,” paid listings from Overture for the word. The upper half of the window asks “What would you like to do?” listing tasks such as “Find information about cars” or “Find used car information.”

Selecting task links tends to lead to specialty resources or information vendors. The used car option directs to information from Microsoft’s CarPoint site, such as Epinions.com and the Kelley Blue Book.

The tasks I’ve seen suggested are helpful, so much so you’ll want them on MSN Search itself. That could happen, given that Microsoft has often tested new search ideas within the IE browser before transferring them to MSN Search.

You might assume the resources listed in Search Companion lead to Microsoft’s own content or that of partners. This is not the case at all.

In a search for “buying books online,” the top option is “Find an online book.” Answers are not from Amazon, as you might expect, but from a site at the University of Pennsylvania.

A search for “roseola” brings a task to “Find information about the disease roseola.” Answers are from MEDLINE and other choices, including Google’s Conditions & Diseases directory (though it didn’t work correctly when I tried it).

Other Search Engines and Jump Highlighting

At the bottom of the Search Companion, an option is “Automatically send your search to other search engines.” This brings up choices such as AltaVista and Google, where clicking on their links return results from those services.

This didn’t always work properly. A search for “camping sites in yosemite” was translated into “camping yosemite” in MSN Search, even surrounded with quotation marks. Requesting the search be forwarded to other engines sent the wrong term.

The other option at the bottom of the pane is “Highlight words on the results page,” a really nice feature. It works on any page selected from the results. When using highlights, the individual words you searched for are shown as links in the companion window. Each time you click on a link, you’ll jump to the next occurrence of that word on the page.

This is a great way to jump within large documents. Getting to it is a difficult process. It would be nice if Microsoft made it a standalone button.

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