Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Magic Text Field: searching, URLs and bookmarks

Cabel Maxfield Sasser notes how advertisements in Japan display search boxes with recommended search terms, as opposed to URLs. It certainly feels more user-friendly (and natural) to enter real words into one box (the search box) than to type something as geeky as a URL in another box (the URL field), and the author even speculates that future versions of Safari may transition to displaying a more prominent Google field and a less prominent URL field.

This has got me thinking. These are my closely related, highly anecdotal observations on URL entry vs. searching:

  • Some people (especially Firefox users) enter everything, even URLs, in the Google box. (By default, a new Firefox window has focus on the Google box.) These users will have to click again at the Google-displayed URL, but they don't seem to mind.
  • I sometimes catch myself mistakenly using the URL field instead of the Google field, hinting that search may be taking over from URL entry in my use as well.
  • Firefox actually accommodates (perhaps encourages) this previous behavior: entering expressions in the URL box yields Google search results or top hits. Other browsers simply display the predictable error messages caused by such attempts at connecting to malformed URLs.
But then I also have some more loosely related observations as well, mostly concerning bookmarks and history items:
  • I hardly ever use the bookmarks menu for opening a page, relying on the autocomplete feature of the URL field instead. That is, if I add something to my bookmarks, I will navigate to it later by starting to type some words from its URL (if meaningful), rather than choosing it from the menu.
  • But then I hardly ever add any bookmarks either. If I want to bookmark a page for later retrieval, I don't have to do anything: it will be automatically added to the History list, and thus it will be available for autocomplete, too.
  • In Leopard, Safari's history items and cached pages are indexed by Spotlight, even enabling users to find visited pages by searching for words in their contents.
The most perfect solution for me would probably involve one huge box with hooks for a lot of AI magic working behind the scenes, listing Google hits, URL matches, Wikipedia and Dictionary and other results, cached page search terms, all categorized, ranked in an ultra-smart way with the most likely results first, all displayed in real time, with easy keyboard-based navigation possibilities.

I think web pages are verbal, and the most natural way of relating to them is by typing text.

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