Requiem for the Browser Search Box

The changes promised in Apple’s forthcoming OS X Mountain Lion release look promising on the whole, but there’s one that makes me sad: the next major version of Safari will sport a unified address bar. Instead of two fields, one for the URL and one for search, Macworld writes that “the browser now sports a single lengthy field that can be used to type in a URL; pull up the top result in your selected search engine from a keyword or search the Web, your bookmarks and history, or within the page itself.”

Though I spend most of my time using Firefox, which still has both an address bar and a search box, I also spend a fair amount of time using Chrome which of course, popularized the concept of the unified search bar in the first place. I find the unified search bar to be a fine complement to the way I use my browser, but I still stubbornly prefer two fields up there.

Search Me

Many people don’t agree, but I find that second search field to be incredibly useful. I frequently use it to ‘park’ search terms, so I can browse search results freely and then quickly return to the original query and even edit it. And, again unlike many people, I make frequent use of the specific search ‘engines’ available under that field — both ones that ship with the browser and ones that you can add yourself. Being able to scope a query specifically to Amazon, IMDB or Netflix is very useful.

Browser Search Field

However, it’s clear that this is becoming an outmoded use case for browsing. The unified search bar is the current paradigm, just as the segregated search field was in its day. In fact, from what I understand, Firefox, which originally popularized the segregated search field, is contemplating the unified search bar as well.

Though I feel quite wedded to that search field, I’m sure once it’s gone I’ll adjust just fine. It feels ingrained, but if Apple has shown us anything, it’s that the way we use computing technology is much more fluid and temporary than we might believe. We all get invested in particular ways of doing things, specific features and workflows that we think we can’t live without, but of course in the end this is all changing so fast that such habits are practically ephemeral. We adapt and move on, which I think is a good thing.

  1. I think removing the separation is long overdue. I’ve been using Oliver Poitrey’s Safari Omnibar for a long time, which allows/ed the user to switch search engines on the fly. Since then, launchers like Alfred and LaunchBar are filling that need for me.

    While the tradeoff is a steeper learning curve, giving the lone text field more power and flexibility — i.e. making the software smarter — is a Good Thing.

    Good riddance search box. I won’t miss having to back-tab over you to get to the address bar.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this. I switched to Chrome about 2 months, and I’m really having a tough time letting go of the search box, specifically because I *think* it’s more efficient at scoping my searches to various sites.

    If I wanted to search Netflix: Click and select Netflix in dropdown. Type query. Two simple steps.

    Now: I have to type a term to define the search engine, press space bar to lock searching that scope, and then type term. Remembering these shortcut terms, and helping the browser distinguish your typing scope vs. general search term gets hinky sometimes. Just isn’t as streamlined and as deliberate as I would like. I’ve really begun to loathe this process. Maybe I just need to find a search box hack.

    Then again, maybe I’m just set in my ways. I still like double-clicking the title-bar of a desktop window to minimize it in place, and not to the dock. Thank the lord for Unsanity hacks.

  3. Shayne – I’m surprised you dislike the all-keyboard process for using other search engines. I couldn’t live without it. For me, being able to switch between search engines without lifting my hands off the keyboard is extremely efficient, vs. having to use the mouse, then the keyboard. I can easily search wikipedia by doing “wiki philately”, or if I need to look up a word definition, I can do: “d philately”. It’s way faster, especially when you can use keywords.

  4. @John – I’m sure that you are right. I’m in the middle of the transition from one method to other. Some transitions are harder than others. This one just seems to be a stickler for me.

  5. I’m with John on this one, I am a keyboard user where I can, and assigning letters to my searches is great. “E” for eBay, “G” for Google, and a few other ones make the address bar as good as an “omnibar”, while still allowing me to use the search bar like Khoi does, leaving phrases up there that I’ll need later, or sometimes even stripping HTML formatting from something I copied and need to paste elsewhere without its formatting being applied. Another shortcut is CTRL+UP or DOWN arrows while in the search bar to toggle between the different engines.

  6. I tend to disagree with Khoi on this too. Even though Chrome is still buggy as hell, I love the unified search bar.

    I use the German-English translation engine a lot, so I have assigned a simple character “d” to it. Now all I have to do is

    CMD+T for a new tab, then d SPACE “search term”, done.

    If you want to park things in there, just open a new tab with the shortcut. Way more efficient than navigating to a different search field. 🙂

  7. i don’t think you need to worry about firefox.

    first of all, those are UI experiments, and i don’t think they represent the future of firefox, at least not in the near term.

    mozilla project leaders have long explained why they don’t integrate search and address bar into one: they don’t feel comfortable sending every keystroke you enter in the address bar to the search provider.

    second, whatever default changes in firefox, there will probably be an option to revert it, or at least an extension that does the same (like it has been the case with any major change to the firefox UI for years).

    idk, i like the omnibox approach (i use an extension in firefox today that does that ;), but i can see it both ways..

  8. When I switched to Chrome I felt the same way — for about 10 minutes. After that, using Cmd+L for both url entry and searches got real handy. For my browsing habits, dropping Cmd+Ctrl+F has been great.

  9. Unified search is so much more elegant, I’m shocked Apple didn’t do it first. It’s really been my only complaint about Safari. Hoping this makes its way to iOS next.

  10. “We adapt and move on, which I think is a good thing.” – Really good conclusion. I feel there are always a bit of unrevealing with users after a UX/UI change, but after realizing it was done with their (users) intentions in mind, they learn to fall in love with it.

  11. I don’t like the unified search box either. First, there’s the privacy issue: the idea of all my keystrokes getting sent to Google or whomever scares me. Second, I think the UX of two separate bars is better, at least for advanced users. Looking for a page you’ve already been to and performing a new search are usually two separate tasks, so putting the history results and the suggested search terms together muddies things. And there’s the scoping issue.

    But what really annoys me in all this URL bar stuff is that Chrome has dropped Google’s awesome “Browse By Name” service. The service allows a user to enter search terms and it will take him/her either to a search results page or, if it’s pretty sure what website he/she meant, directly to the site. So if you enter “nyt”, “wikipedia apple”, “oxford university”, or a url typo like “facebook.cmo”, it takes you where you’d expect, which felt pretty magical when I first tried it.

    Firefox 2 and 3 called the service when the user entered an invalid url, so the address bar automatically corrected typos and could be a smart search box too. But Firefox 4+ and Chrome don’t use it, which seems like a pretty sure sign that Google’s phasing it out. (For now, you can still get it back by editing your search engines/about:config settings.) The only plausible reason I can think of for them doing so is that letting users skip the SERPS was costing them ad dollars. But it sucks for users.

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