December 27, 2006

Google Toolbar 3.0 beta improves browsing experience

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The Google Toolbar 3 (GT3) beta for Firefox, released earlier this month, includes a slew of new features, including bookmarks, integration with Google Apps, and customizable buttons.

I tested the toolbar with Firefox 2.0 and Flock 0.7.9. You'll see a warning before you install the toolbar on Flock that the extension wasn't designed specifically for Flock, but I haven't run into any problems with it so far in Flock.

Once I had it installed, I signed out of Google services and signed in using the Google Toolbar sign-in feature. I was then authenticated for Gmail, Google Apps, Google Bookmarks, Blogger, and the whole kit and caboodle of Google services I tried, with the exception of AdSense.

Google Toolbar buttons

After signing in, I decided to load up the toolbar with some of Google's toolbar buttons. A few Google-specific buttons are included with the toolbar, and Google has a gallery of additional Toolbar buttons for use with other sites and Web services. For instance, you can add a button, a weather button, or (for the really twisted) a button for the Brazilian Britney Spears site.

I'm a bit disappointed, though, that the toolbar doesn't provide any integration for three of my favorite Google services: Google Reader, Google Notebook, and Google Talk. The disappointment is somewhat mollified by the fact that I can create my own buttons for the Google Toolbar -- though not for those three services.

To create your own button for a site, all you need to do is to right-click in a search box on the Web site you want a custom button for. You'll see a "Generate Custom Search" entry in the context menu; selecting that adds the search button to your toolbar. You can trick the button out even further by adding an RSS or Atom feed, or adding icons to the drop-down menu.

Button creation is pretty simple if you're satisfied with a feed and site search. I created a custom button for my own site in about two minutes, and that includes the time it took to look through Google's documentation for the syntax to add the feed.

Unfortunately, you can't create a Google Reader button because Google Reader doesn't have search functionality (how weird is that?), and for some reason you don't get the "Generate Custom Search" menu entry when clicking on the Google Notebook search field.

Google bookmarks

Another new feature in GT3 is integration with Google Bookmarks. The toolbar includes a star button that you can click to bookmark a page, and another menu that includes all of your bookmarks, sorted by label (a.k.a. "tags" on or date added/modified.

This is a nice feature to have, but I find it a bit clunky compared to the toolbar for Firefox. Using, you can create a bookmark and tag it with one click. Google's bookmark feature requires you to bookmark the page first, then edit the bookmark to add labels. If you want to add notes, which you can do from the initial bookmark dialog with, you have to visit your Google Bookmarks page and add the notes there; there's no way to do this via the Edit Bookmark dialog.

For users who like Google Bookmarks, the integration with GT3 for Firefox is a nice addition. It's been available in the IE toolbar for some time, so it's good that it's finally showing up in the Firefox toolbar. However, the features just aren't compelling enough for me to switch away from, especially since there's no obvious way to import bookmarks into Google Bookmarks.

Search functions

After installing the Google Toolbar, you can choose to have two search boxes, or you can replace Firefox's existing search box with Google's search box, or remove the additional search box by customizing the Google toolbar. If you replace the existing Firefox search box, using the Ctrl-k shortcut will take you to the Google homepage rather than placing the cursor in the search box.

The button add-ons make it easy to search the sites you visit most often. Just enter a term in the search box and then click the button for the site you want to search using the site's own search feature, not Google search. If you like to use Yahoo!,, or other search engines, you can add a custom search button for your "alternative" search engines.

Send to...

What if you've been browsing a site and want to share your latest find with a friend, or post about it on your blog, or maybe send a map to your mobile phone? GT3 provides an easy way to do this with a "Send to" menu that lets you send a page or URL to Gmail, Blogger, or via Short Message Service (SMS).

Sending to Gmail and SMS works fine, but I had some trouble trying to send a page to Blogger. I use WordPress, so I had to sign up for a Blogger account. I opted for the "new" Blogger. Unfortunately, the Send to Blogger function seems to work only with the "old" Blogger interface, because I'd be sent to the login interface for Blogger every time I tried to use the Send to Blogger function, even after authenticating.

Even if it worked correctly, this feature is of little use if you're not a Blogger user. It's probably too much to hope for, since they're competing products, but I'd love to see support for WordPress and other popular blogging software and services.

Integrating Google Docs

I'm not an office suite kind of guy, but people keep sending me Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. I've started using Google Docs to maintain spreadsheets and read Word docs that don't require any editing on my part.

GT3 adds two features that are supposed to make reading office docs easier. First, you can drag and drop a file into your browser and it will be opened with Google Apps. This saves a few steps when you want to import a document into Google Apps. Second, if you find an office document on a Web page, the GT3 extension is supposed to tell your browser to open it in Google Apps. This feature hasn't worked for me, but I would imagine that is something that will be cleared up before the final release of GT3.

The file formats supported by GT3 for integration with Google Apps are Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Rich Text Format (RTF), Open Document Text, Open Document Spreadsheet, StarOffice XML Writer (SXW), and Comma-Separated Value (CSV) files.

Since I've started to use Google Apps regularly, I wish Google would provide a way to access saved documents, or start a new document in Google Apps, via the toolbar. Again, though, you can create a custom search button that will search through your documents straight from the Google Toolbar.

Speaking of integration, I'm sure many users are annoyed that it's not possible to set Gmail as the handler for mailto links in Firefox. GT3 takes care of that by providing Gmail as an optional handler for mailto links. If you prefer Gmail to a traditional mailer, this is a must-have feature.

Final thoughts

Your Google Toolbar buttons will travel with you if you use multiple computers, so long as you have the software installed, so if you add custom buttons at home, and then fire up Firefox and GT3 at work, you'll see the custom buttons there as well.

Since I installed Google Toolbar 3.0 beta, I have experienced a marked increase in problems with Firefox on my primary desktop. I've had no problems while running Flock and the Google Toolbar, and I haven't had any problems with GT3 and Firefox on other machines -- but I spend less time browsing on other machines, and don't have as many plugins installed, either. I'm not sure if GT3 is the culprit, or if it's an interaction with another extension that cause the other extension to lock Firefox up, but I've only experienced problems when I had GT3 loaded. With any luck, this is a problem that will be solved with the next beta, release candidate, or final release of GT3.

Aside from the occasional freeze, which may not be GT3's fault entirely, I've found the new Google Toolbar to be a really handy addition to Firefox. If you spend a fair amount of time using Google services, I'd recommend grabbing the beta and giving it a whirl.

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