February 11, 2008

A toolbar trinity

Author: Dan Sawyer

Firefox rocks because it acts like a Lego set -- you have your base module, and then you can stick extensions on it. Some of the most obvious extensions are toolbars. Unlike the embedded-application extensions like Chatzilla or FireFTP, toolbars actually modify your interface. A toolbar can contain search engine interfaces, bookmarks, RSS feeds, or extra tools for managing content. A lot of toolbars are very specialized -- tools for multimedia producers, musicians, and even Mormon theology students. Here are three more general toolbars that any net junkie will find useful.

Google Advanced Operations

Extension logo

The Google search engine has a number of query functions you can use to refine your search results, but most people don't know what those functions are. Even those of us who do know the syntax sometimes have trouble remembering what the right string is to get what we're looking for, and wind up paging through irrelevant results because it's quicker than looking up the functions.

The Google Advanced Operations toolbar exposes the search functions to the average user. On the left is a standard search box, and to the right are list boxes and text boxes that allow even a novice to construct a sophisticated search string. The toolbar lets anyone get better search results, faster.

Okapiland Search Toolbar

Suppose you need to find a page you saw a few days ago but didn't bookmark, and, having good security policies, you clear our browser history and cache every day. But you vaguely remember how you got there, so you try to retrace your steps. It's an arduous process, and it isn't made any easier by all the little pop-ups and JavaScript applets that have found ways around your browser's built-in pop-up blocker.

Okapiland has delivered a nifty little toolbar that makes retracing your steps -- or even creating a site map -- simple. Input a URL in the search box, and the toolbar uses Yahoo's search engine to map out the site and all sites attached to it via hyperlinks. Then it opens all of them in your browser window as thumbnails, sans pop-ups and JavaScript. Chances are, the page you're looking for is in the map generated. If it's not -- say, if it's buried three or four links deep on the path you took the other day -- you just select the displayed page you remember visiting before and repeat the process until you find the page you're looking for.

Of course, because of the way this process works, the search toolbar also can generate site maps and do other fun things if you're a content creator.

Smart Page Rank Toolbar

If you have a blog, it would be nice to see your page rank, your blog valuation, a comprehensive list of your backlinks, and a graph of traffic to your Web site without having to log into your blog control panel and install a bunch of plugins. The Smart Page Rank toolbar gives you all of this in a small, unobtrusive toolbar.

The tools included are simple, but not simplistic. The traffic graph, for example, lets you set up traffic comparisons from different sites, overlaid on a line graph with different time frames, extending from seven days up to five years. And it gives you a way to do the same with your friends and competitors, as it gives you all the same information for their pages as well, automatically, any time you open one of their pages. It also gives you domain availability and whois query tools, so you can easily tell if a coveted domain name is coming up for sale, or identify who owns a particular site. That can be useful for researching the allegiances of a particular information source.

Each of these three toolbars, used independently, is a nice addition to the browsing experience. Used together -- particularly if you're an information junkie, a blogger, or just insatiably curious -- they give you a suite of tools that streamline your Web surfing.

Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)


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