Four Firefox addons to help Google

Firefox and Google play nice together.  Here’s four Firefox addons that enhance Google’s behaviour.

Google is a wonderful thing.  But if you’re running Firefox, you can augment your googling experience with some add-ons.  An add-on is a downloadable chunk of code that runs inside Firefox only and changes its behaviour.  Using add-ons is a great way to improve your productivity with Firefox (or any other browser that supports them, of course) because add-ons fine-tune the browser’s behaviour to suit you – not the other way around.

Let’s start with a screen grab showing Firefox running a couple of the add-ons.

GoogleEnhancer and DeeperWeb running together

GoogleEnhancer and DeeperWeb running together

GoogleEnhancer

Let’s start on the left side, the side that looks almost like a typical google page.  Here we see GoogleEnhancer running.  The most important thing to notice is the date beside each hit.  That’s the date that the corresponding web resource was first created (or at least, as near to that date as Google can get).  Think about that: now you know how old those pages are.  No more following links with wildly interesting titles that take you to a page that hasn’t been updated in 10 years.  That in itself is, as they say, worth the price of admission.

Notice that the blue bar that reports the number of hits also includes the timeframe covered by the reported hits – in this case “over the past year.”  You can change the period of time by using the new pulldown beside the search box at the top of the page (it’s marked “anytime” in the screen grab).

You can also search for specific file types only by using the “Any file” pulldown by the search bar to chose which file type you’re interested in.  You want to find only MP3 files?  Or just PDF files?  Just choose it from that pulldown.

GoogleEnhancer can do a number of other things, like search for web resources in specific languages only, each of which can be separately enabled through the add-ons control panel (in the Tools menu).  It’s a “light” add-on (it won’t slow the browser down), and it’s so useful that I can’t imagine googling anymore without it.

DeeperWeb

The right side of the image shows another add-on, DeeperWeb.  This add-on uses a database maintained by the developers to generate quite quickly additional information about your search. Basically, this add-on puts a bit more structure on Google’s query results.  It’s a tricky balance: too much structure and it becomes too rigid to capture the broad variety of stuff Google can show you; to little structure and there’s no point to having the add-on at all.

Most importantly, DeeperWeb creates a tag cloud (the jumble of keywords at the top of right sidebar).  Each tag in the cloud will filter the search results to favour those with the keyword.  The bigger the keyword’s font size, the greater its occurrences in the search.

Notice that one keyword in the tag cloud (“graphic”) is coloured differently.  This is because my mouse was hovering over it when I took the screen grab.  If I clicked on the green part of the highlighted keyword, DeeperWeb will interact with Google to refine your search by refining it to those hits that contain the keyword.  For instance, in the screen grab, I had searched for “design.”  If I then selected the green part of the “graphic” keyword from DeeperWeb’s tag cloud, the next search would be for “design graphic.”

And if I selected the red minus sign on the “graphic” keyword, Google would search for “design,” excluding any hits containing “graphic.”  (In Googlese: design -graphic.)

Below the tag cloud, DeeperWeb offers the top hits from a number of other search engines as well – because sometimes Google isn’t exactly perfect – and includes things like searching for blogs that contain your query, searching Wikipedia, and so on.

The one reservation I have about DeeperWeb.com is that I get there feeling from its announcements that there’s a bit of a bias towards using its software to attract business (as possibly implied by sentences like, “In addition to these, there are several clever business, internet marketing and SEO applications to the DeeperWeb’s Tag-Cloud extension….“)

GButts

That’s right, I said “GButts.”

Actually, this stands for Google Buttons.  Very simply, it lets you add buttons to the Firefox main toolbar to access virtually any Google app.

GoogleButtonsImage2009

Ignoring the appearance (I use a Firefox theme called Glaze Black), notice the set of toolbar icons between the print icon and the address bar in the top row.  You’ve got Google mail, Calendar, Docs, Groups, Picasa, and Reader.  The last icon (it’s a gear) allows one to change the settings of GButts and add or remove other Google apps.

A brilliantly simple change really helps me control all the other links I’ve got embedded in my toolbars.

GoogleFx

Lastly, there’s GoogleFx, which is not really for beginners, but can be quite useful.  GoogleFx doesn’t play nicely with DeeperWeb and GoogleEnhancer, but it can replace them.  GoogleFx is more flexible, though not quite as pretty, as the other two add-ons.

GoogleFxImage2009

Like GoogleEnhancer and DeeperWeb, GoogleFx catches output from Google and rewrites the web page to appear more organized than the original.  GoogleFx lets you tweak the layout (notice how the titles of each hit are in a larger font), adds thumbnails of each hit (some people really hate this – I’m not one of them), and provides a right sidebar with all kinds of extra items (if it can find any) and related searches.  You tweak the appearance and options via the preferences button that shows up in the GoogleFx entry in Firefoxs’s add-on management tool.

GoogleFx has a number of tools (at the top) that can be useful, like searching only for resources that are recent.  It also lets you get rid of the advertisements that usually run down the right side of the page, and it rewrites the web page URLs so that they don’t bounce through Google before directing you to the actual site.  These last two I don’t like so much, because those ads pay for Google freedom, and the redirection trick is how Google gathers data to rate the most popular sites.  Both of these need to keep going if Google is going to thrive.  If you like Google, leave these features alone, or you’ll be actually holding them back.

There is a bit of a trick to install GoogleFx.  It’s a greasemonkey extension.  Greasemonkey is a Firefox add-on that lets you modify how specific pages are rendered in Firefox via other Javascript code.  So first you have to install greasemonkey.  Then you install GoogleFx.  It’s not as hard as it sounds – it’s only about a 3 click process – and the next time you do a Google search, you’ll see a substantially different page layout.

One word of warning: the default values for GoogleFx’s look and feel may not be to your liking, so be ready to spend a little time tweaking which GoogleFx options you like best.

The Bottom Line

These add-ons are really easy to install, yet provide very signficiant improvements in how you can use Google in Firefox.  This means you’ll get more done.  Or, if you’re like me, you’ll get the same amount of work done in less time – and then go spend more time having fun.

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