Search in Firefox is responsible for almost all of Mozilla’s revenue. Though early versions of Firefox shipped a number of search innovations, in recent years it has fallen behind other browsers and more and more people have begun to rely on search engines as their gateway to the internet.
Give people new capabilities for finding and making sense of information without forcing them to adopt new ways of working or feel like they need to learn to use a browser again.
Search behaviors are so habitual they’re invisible to people. My strategy has been to expose functionality in context, allowing people to adopt the tools that they feel are helpful for their current task. Navigating and searching in the address bar is a key context. If we can be better at helping people here—at providing capabilities that a search engine can’t—we think more people will find it a valuable starting point. So my starting point then has been with some of the things people could discover whether or not they were using the address bar to search the web.
This first search update in years included a new design to bring it inline with the rest of Firefox (redesigned in 2017) but more importantly it included our first attempts at exposing new capabilities in context.
In our research we saw a lot of people that reused tabs most of the time. Some never even saw the new tab page. So I wanted to bring your top sites from the new tab page into the address bar to make them accessible to more people. After all, if you’re done with a tab and then click into the address bar to navigate away, maybe next you’d want to go to one of the sites you visit most. So that’s what we did.
This was pretty tricky to get right though. It was important to us that this new capability was accessible to people who only use a keyboard. The problem was that keyboard only users use the CTRL+L shortcut not just to focus the address bar but also as a convenient place to navigate the UI. In this situation, the new interaction was like encountering a modal dialog a zillion times each day. We could have fixed this by removing support for using the TAB key to navigate the search panel but we’ve supported that for a long time and it’s a favorite of power users. We also knew we wanted to leverage that for a future update. So with some sacrifice of total consistency, we were able to make it work for everyone. Basically, we were able to completely change the focus interaction without completely changing the interaction.
By default, many regions have a pinned Amazon search shortcut in the top sites. This allows you to easily search Amazon without navigating to amazon.com first. By exposing top sites in the address bar, we also made this search shortcut much easier to discover and use. We have more planned here and are working on this now as part of our next update.
We also added our first small step into discerning intent and bringing answers directly into the address bar. We began with simple Firefox related queries. For example, a really common way people update Firefox is to search for the download page by typing “download firefox.” The thing is, you’ve likely already downloaded the update in the background and just need to apply it by restarting. So now when you type “download firefox” we give you that restart button right in the search interface.
The Top Sites and vertical search addtions have been successful. People are using them and beginning to diversify their search habits. We’re hard at work on improving and extending this for an update later this year.