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Revamped Firefox to play up new search options

Mozilla's open-source browser now makes your search-engine choices more prominent. That could speed up specialty searches with sites such as eBay or Wikipedia.

Firefox developers are changing the Web browser's search interface as well as the default search engine it uses to execute those searches.

Last week, Mozilla announced a partnership to make Yahoo the default search engine for Firefox users in the United States. This week, it has unveiled changes to the search box people use to get to those search results.

Specifically, when people start entering search terms, Firefox will present a reorganized list of the suggested searches and will add an array of search engines that can be used to complete the search, according to a blog post by Philipp Sackl, a member of the Firefox user experience team. "Firefox is all about choice, and with the new UI, searching is now more flexible and powerful than ever," Sackl said in the post Tuesday, adding that the feature will come "soon."

The extra tiles feature the search options already built into Firefox including Google, Bing, Amazon, DuckDuckGo, Twitter, Wikipedia, eBay and Yahoo. As with the current browser, more can be added. Placing the tiles more prominently, though, could help send more traffic to those other search engines and could help people reach a specialized search result sooner.

Firefox will make search-engine options prominent as tiles in the search suggestions area beneath the search box.
Firefox will make search-engine options prominent as tiles in the search suggestions area beneath the search box. Mozilla

Search previously was just a convenient feature tacked onto browsers, but now it's become critical as search engines become more useful and people rely on them more. A browser is a lot more than a front end to a search engine, but searching is clearly a top activity. Firefox users send more than 100 billion searches a year to search engines, so streamlining or expanding how it works is important for Firefox users and for the search engines they rely on.

Firefox helped pioneer the search box in browsers when Mozilla released Firefox 1.0 a decade ago. That search box turned into Mozilla's cash cow as Google and other search partners returned a share of search-ad revenue to the non-profit organization.

Since then, rival browsers added their own search boxes, but their approach has diverged a bit from Firefox's approach.

Google's Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari all have moved to a unified search and address box where people can enter Web links or search terms. In contrast, Firefox has kept its search-specific box to the right of the address bar -- though it can be removed through customization. Firefox's address bar accepts search terms, too, but unlike the search bar, it doesn't offer search suggestions. For example, if you type "full susp" in the search box, it'll suggest search results for "full suspension mountain bikes," "full suspension vs. hardtail," "full suspension 29er mountain bikes."

If you type that into Firefox's address bar, you'll get nothing. That distinction helps maintain some privacy, since getting search suggestions requires sending data to a search engine, and a person might not want to send Web addresses they're visiting along with the search terms. Likewise, you're not likely to type a Web address into the search box.

Developers of Firefox rival browsers evidently think the convenience and simpler interface are worth it, but the new Firefox is sticking with its separated boxes at least for now.

It's clear, though, that Mozilla has search religion. One reason it cited for the move from Google to Yahoo is a better ability to innovate around search, Chairwoman Mitchell Baker said. So expect more changes to Firefox search down the road.