Tech Sense by John Bell January 2023: Using your Tools: The Browser pt. 3
Updated: Jan 25
Part 1 of this column can be found by clicking here.
Part 2 of this column can be found by clicking here
The Browser Part 3
So here we come to the final part covering the web browser in this “Using our Tools” series. This month we will cover Search Engines, Home Pages, Add-ons and Extensions.
The Search Engine
Search Engines may not seem to be an integral part of the web browser but in most modern browsers the search engine is used to automatically find what you are looking for if you didn’t correctly enter a URL in the address field. Chrome, Firefox, and Safari all use Google as the default search engine. This isn’t an accident, Chrome is of course maintained by Google, but Mozilla, the creator of Firefox and Apple are paid by Google to be the default search engine. This is valuable to Google because the search engine sees everything typed into the address bar and then everything selected in the search results. The Microsoft Edge browser defaults to using Microsoft Bing as its default search engine.
It is easy to change the default search engine by going into settings and selecting search. This will allow you to choose another search engine as the default. The primary alternatives are Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and DuckDuckGo, a search engine that provides privacy for your searches. Yahoo is also listed on Chrome and Edge, but needs to be added to Firefox. A quick search will show the answer if Yahoo is needed on Firefox. Firefox allows use of different engines without changing the default. Just click on the address bar before hitting enter and a pulldown search menu will appear with the other choices of available search engines.
Because the search feature exposes your search and browsing information to the search engine the browsers usually provide an option to disable these features when using private browsing. It is also possible to remove search engines that you don’t want to appear when you have a choice of search engines.
Home Pages and New Pages
The “Home” page is the page appearing in the browser when you first start the browser. Like the search settings this will vary between browsers and is configurable. Chrome uses the Google search page as the home page by default. Mozilla has a lightweight home page as well that provides a Google search box and some information about Mozilla. It has a feature where frequently used pages will form a grid below the search box, making it easy to revisit them. It can optionally show a lot of other information, but I tend to turn all of that off. Edge provides a very busy page with news, and weather and menus leading to places that Microsoft believes you may want to visit. Their page is somewhat similar to the MSN, AOL, or Yahoo start pages. However, like Firefox the Edge Home Page can be configured from within the browser, adding and removing some of the content on the page.
Home pages are easily changed in all of the browsers, so if you prefer clean and crisp Google Search page just set the home page to https://www.google.com no matter which browser you are using. Or you may prefer https://yahoo.com or https://aol.com.
There is a separate but closely related feature called the New Page. This is the page that appears when you ask for a new tab to be created, often by clicking the plus to the right of the rightmost tab on the browser. The New page may be set to be the same as the home page, a different web page or in the case of Firefox an internal page that is somewhat customizable.
If you know a little HTML it is possible for you to create your own home and new pages and store it as a file on your computer. Change the settings to point the Home and New page files and you will see your own customized page each time you start your browser or open a new page.
Add-ons and Extensions
Add-ons and Extensions are programs that have been built to give the browser extended capabilities. In this section we will cover some popular extensions, but there are thousands of them so we will just look at some of the categories and mention a few of the best extensions. The most popular extensions have been written and rewritten to work on multiple browsers. It is my belief that Chrome has the most extensions because Google has provided an environment to run applications like Google Docs in the browser and they have enhanced the browser to support this.
Security and Privacy Extensions
There are a number of extensions that add additional security and privacy features to the browser. uBlock Origin and Adblock Ultimate are both respected ad blockers, preventing most advertisements from showing up in your browser. They can be enabled or disabled for individual sites and the can have the effect of speeding up the browser because it doesn’t have to deal with ads you don’t want to see. These programs also attempt to stop web trackers and malware attacks.
Google of course is not happy with ad blocking, so they are slowly trying to remove the features from their browser that the extensions depend on. They are planning to provide a less annoying ad experience for their browser. So far this hasn’t been successful, and Google has pushed the deadline back again and again. I used Adblock Plus for years and switched to uBlock Origin a couple of years ago. I find both extensions work well for me (but only use one at a time).
There are also several password manager extensions that remember your passwords for you and fill in the forms automatically. Some of these are tied to other security products or standalone password managers like Norton and LastPass. Kee is a product that is both free and Open Source. Firefox created a password manager but has now built it into Firefox.
Themes and Colors
Themes and color extensions allow you to customize the appearance of your browser to suit your own tastes. Personally, I don’t use these on my browser, but I know many who do enjoy it. Themes exist for favorite TV shows, games, products like cars, and artistic themes.
In the shopping area the most popular tools seem to be around price comparison and coupon clipping. In the DC Metro area, we regularly see commercial for the Capital One Shopping App, which is a coupon clipper. There is also an Amazon Shopping Helper by Amazon.
I am out of space so let me add some final words. The browser has a lot of capabilities that we have barely touched on. Hopefully, you have learned a few new tools that will help you get better use from the browser as the New Year begins. I wish everyone a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.