Over the past few years, almost every major search engine has released their individual version of the downloadable search bar targeted at corporate desktops. While each bar's features vary, the fundamental premise is the same: they allow users to search the Web using their favorite search engine from the comfort of their own desktop, regardless of the application they happen to be using. Google, Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves, and Teoma have all recently released similar toolbars and Merriam-Webster and others have released more specialized versions.
The Yahoo! Companion is a toolbar veteran that provides perhaps the most comprehensive and customizable search bar available. The bar itself can be tailored in a number of ways including the features offered on the bar, the order in which the features appear, and how the buttons look (pictures only, words and pictures, or words only). Yahoo! offers an extensive variety of features including: personal tools (calendar, address book, careers, etc.); news (news, weather, finance, etc.); sports (NBA, NFL, fantasy sports, etc.); entertainment (movies, radio, TV, etc.); and reference (dictionary, thesaurus, yellow pages, maps, etc.). The Yahoo! Companion can be further customized when users are signed in to their Yahoo! ID by alerting them to incoming email or further focusing buttons--for example, pulling up show times in your area when the Movies feature is selected.
Google's Toolbar sets the industry standard for search bars; it has almost everything you could ask for without a lot of hype or clutter. Although their list of customizable features is significantly shorter than Yahoo!'s, Google offers a variety of search options including a Google search, a site search, page rank, page info, highlighting, and a word find to locate search terms on the page. If what you need is strictly a search tool for Web research, Google gets the job done. In an effort to accommodate an increasingly multicultural Internet community, the Google Toolbar is offered in 20 different languages and users who cannot locate their native language can contact Google to help them create it. Nate Tyler, Google spokesperson, says that, "the Toolbar is a continuation of Google's ongoing mission to organize the world's information to make it universally accessible and useful. We see the Google Toolbar as an extension to Google.com that gives users fast access to the world's best search tools from any Web page on the Internet."
In many ways, the newly released Ask Jeeves toolbar stands out as the most family-friendly; it includes a Search AJ Kids feature that searches only child-appropriate Web sites and a Search Events feature that locates restaurants, events, or show times based on the user's ZIP code or city and state. Ask Jeeves also offers JeevesLinks which is designed to make online researching more efficient by tracking and saving a user's searches for later access. However, with Jeeves' recent push into the enterprise market, the lack of more business-focused tools is conspicuous.
The Teoma Toolbar (also owned by Ask Jeeves) has very simple offerings: search Teoma, search dictionary, highlight, and email this page to a friend. Surprisingly, only Ask Jeeves and Teoma offer the Email This Page to a Friend feature; neither Google nor Yahoo! include that in their extensive list of features. According to Ask Jeeves director of communications Alexa McCann: "Toolbars are by far the most requested feature by Ask Jeeves and Teoma users. Launching toolbars for these sites was a natural evolution for us because it was something our users wanted. From a business standpoint, toolbars can significantly increase user loyalty and frequency which ultimately results in a stronger business."
Not surprisingly, all of these search bars provide essentially the same functionality: they allow users to search the Web, highlight onscreen text, and search some number of customizable features. Most will also automatically update themselves when new features are made available, which frees the user from locating and downloading new versions. For the amateur searcher, toolbars offer a clear and convenient alternative to Web site-based search engines, which can be time-consuming and tedious. What differentiates these search bars from one another is the variety of features they offer and how those features appeal to specific users. Rather than being a matter of one of these desktop toolbars rising above all the others, users should try to find the toolbar that best fits their individual needs. The results are out there--it's just a matter of searching.
(http://companion.yahoo.com; http://toolbar.google.com; http://sp.ask.com/docs/toolbar; http://sp.ask.com/docs/teoma/toolbar)