Little things you may not have noticed in IE8: Part 4 – OmniBox™

Use your address bar for searching


A little-known fact is that IE has always had a combination address-bar/search box (this goes back to at least IE6). Well, to be fair, I thought this was fairly well-known until reviewers starting going nuts over the Omnibox™.

If you enter a single word with no spaces, IE has always tried to find a site with that term, and then, if it failed to find one, it went to your search provider. But if you entered two or more words, it went straight to your default search engine. A little-known way to do single word searches quickly is to start typing into the address bar with a question-mark and space (as in the example above), which forces IE to always send your text off to your search provider.

Some people wonder why a separate search box is necessary. The search box’s primary value is to provide a prominent reminder that the browser can help them with the common internet task of searching. From a design point-of-view, however, the search box allows the browser to assume that the primary intention is searching for new things (with a secondary intent of searching for something you’ve searched for before). In IE8, because of this knowledge of user intent, the browser provides several features optimized around internet search, ranging from the quick pick feature to visual search suggestions. The address bar, by contrast, is optimized around navigation – getting you to sites that you know about already, or have visited before (so the drop-down includes your typed URLs, your history, your favorites and feeds).

In IE8, it was important to the team to continue the tradition having a unified address bar/search, but also to enable address-bar-searchers to get access to the cool new features that were being developed for the search box – like Visual Search Suggestions. The UX team built a great shared component known during early development as the GUP, or Grand Unified Picker (Bruce, the development lead who named it in jest, was unhappy that the name stuck, so he eventually forced it to be renamed. :), which allowed both the the address bar and the search box to provide a single drop-down experience across a number of different data sources – some local (like history) and some remote (like visual search suggestions), with a mix of text and images.

The IE team has pulled this off this complex piece of work beautifully. As noted above, the drop-down in the address bar is optimized for navigation scenarios. But, if you start typing in the address bar with a question-mark, IE knows immediately that you intend to do an Internet search, so it immediately swaps in the search-optimized drop-down (which also includes history search after the search-engine supplied suggestions). [Note: it should also do this as soon as you hit two words in the search, but it doesn’t do this in the current Beta. I don’t know if it will be addressed for the final release].

Bonus tip:
The address bar also includes built-in reminders of, and quick access to, some common navigation shortcuts. Click on the arrow at the bottom of the address-bar drop-down to see them.

Can’t resist section:
OmniBox™ + AwesomeBar™ == Smart Address Bar :)

PS. Chrome’s Omnibox gets one thing right – the autocomplete behavior. I’ve said before that IE’s autocomplete is one of my favorite features, and I’m sad that it’s missing from this beta of IE8. They also have a hard-to-use (but visually compelling) implementation of keyword search shortcuts similar to something we planned early in IE8, but which was one of the early cuts (IE has had this feature at least since IE6, but it requires delving into the registry to enable).