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7 sites using software-free toolbars (and why it matters)

Software-free toolbars are popping up all over the place, but are they useful? We take a look at seven different services that make use of them.

The launch of the DiggBar on Thursday was big news. Not only for URL-shortening services, but for the idea of one site bringing some of its features along for the ride, even when a user has left it to go somewhere else.

The idea is not new, though; some services have been doing it for years. We've put together a list of some of the big sites that do it, and why it matters.

Google/Ask/Yahoo/Live Image Search

Searching for images on Yahoo keeps the search UI with you, and gives you a quick way back. CNET

Searching for images on Google, Ask, Live, and Yahoo all bring along a framed toolbar, or a special framed bar that segments the content. When you click on an image from the results on any of these engines it keeps a little frame on the top of the page that gives you copyright and size information, along with a link to the full-quality version. More importantly though, it lets users start another search or simply hop back to the results page.

Why it's important: All routes go back to the search results--and more importantly, back to the ads that were on the page. If the company can get you to start another search, that's another ad impression. Also, from a user's point of view, it's comforting to have a quick breadcrumb trail to get yourself out of there if it's a page you didn't want to end up on, especially if it's coded to keep your back button from letting you leave the page.


Facebook's sneaky link bar is not as advanced as some of the others on this list, but lets you comment and share on outgoing links from the popular social network. CNET

Facebook has had a link sharing feature since late 2006. Only recently, however did shared links come with a navigation bar that comes with the users when they click off-site links. The bar includes who posted the item (in case you're passing along something one of your friends originally shared), as well as the option to add your own comment, or re-share it to your news feed or to other Facebook buddies.

Why it's important: Like what the search engines do for images, Facebook is doing for any link its users share. It simply adds some of Facebook's features like commenting and re-sharing, right on top of the site. It's a much bigger deal for Facebook users though, since for anything that needs a lot of real estate, they can check it out in its original location (read: out of Facebook's limited-size news feed), all without feeling like they've left the site.


StumbleUpon's software-free toolbar comes with you from site to site, and adapts to your browsing style as you surf. CNET

StumbleUpon released a software-free version of its toolbar back in September. It ditched the need for a software-based browser toolbar (which StumbleUpon pioneered) in place of a small frame that loads on top of the Web site you're on. Provided is a way to rate the site you're on from one to five stars, as well as the option to vote whether you liked it. Most importantly though, it continued to include the "Stumble!" button that takes users to new sites, and makes that random decision based on your ratings.

Why it's important: For StumbleUpon this was an easy way to get people in the door without a big commitment. Previously users were able to casually browse the sites that certified members had deemed click-worthy, but there was close to zero interaction. With this new system you can actually vote, and randomly visit sites, and without having to register or download anything. Better yet, the toolbar came along with the links to sites, meaning users could discover it from the links that were shared by friends.


The DiggBar, which launched on Thursday, brings many of Digg's social features with you from site to site. CNET

The DiggBar, in case you missed it, is Digg's big new initiative to both make it easier to share links to stories on the service, as well as hop back to Digg when you're done reading. Any link you see on the front page of Digg now brings the DiggBar with it, a small toolbar that sits atop whatever page you're on, and gives users the option to read other items from the same source, share it with friends, and interact with others in the Digg community. It also automatically shortens the URL to make it easier to share in IM conversations and microblogging services like Twitter.

Why it's important: Beyond being a content portal Digg is now a service provider in giving people a relatively simple way to shorten their URLs and share them with friends. It also adds a plug for Digg by including the option to submit that story to the service with very little user effort. Oh yeah, there are also advertisements when viewing user comments, and related stories by topic or source, which will deliver even more ad impressions to the social news site.

Who's next?

CNET News Poll

Toolbars sans software
What do you think of the growing trend of software-free toolbars?

I like them as long as they're useful.
My browser is a temple and I find them desecrating.
I've never run into them before.
Who cares? Software toolbars rule!

View results

Lots of sites could be adding something similar to their own outgoing links. Just like it does for images, Google could add this to basic Web search results. You could even see it crop up from Web publishers that want to bring people back to a story if they've clicked on an outgoing link. The only problem lies in making sure you're not alienating users, or making them detest the tacked-on browser frame like a pop-up window.

What do you think of the software-free toolbar trend?