Stupid Firefox Tricks, Part I

Tuesday Oct 14th 2008 by Akkana Peck
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Akkana Peck shows how you can speed up your Web searches with custom bookmarklets-- you don't need to be an ace coder to create your own; it's easy, fast, and powerful.

Firefox ... we use it all day, for everything from managing finances to socializing to playing games. But it's a large and complicated programs. Are you getting the most out of your browser? In this series, I'll offer some tricks you can use to spend less time getting more out of the web.

I'll concentrate mostly on Firefox since that's the most popular Linux browser. But most Firefox tricks will work in other Mozilla-based browsers, and some will even work in non-Mozilla browsers like Konqueror and Opera.

I'll start the series with my favorite trick that not many people seem to know about: Bookmarklets. If you're a regular user of Firefox, I'm sure you're familiar with bookmarks, and you probably have a long list of them. But you might not have seen their most useful form.

What are bookmarklets? Think of them as active bookmarks: bookmarks that can do something more than just take you to a single static URL. Sometimes bookmarklets are bits of Javascript code. But the simplest ones are just regular bookmarks with the addition of a parameter.

For instance, the default search in Firefox uses Google. That means anything you type in the regular URLbar that isn't a URL will result in a Google search -- no need to waste space on a separate Google bar.

Google's great, but what if you want to search with Yahoo and see how it compares? Of course, you can go to yahoo.com and type some search terms; but what if you do that all the time? A Yahoo search bookmarklet is just the ticket.

First you need a URL for your bookmarklet. Go to Yahoo, type in a search term like banana and see where it goes. Yahoo will take you to a URL like this:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=banana&fr=yfp-t-501&toggle=1&cop=mss&ei=UTF-8

Go ahead and save that as a bookmark, using Firefox' regular Bookmarks->Bookmark this page menu item. Trim it down if you want to -- http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=banana works just as well as the longer version.

The next step is to give it a keyword -- a unique name for that bookmark. Firefox unfortunately doesn't let you set keywords in the Bookmark this page dialog, though extensions like Openbook can give you a smarter bookmarking dialog. Save the bookmark then call up Bookmarks->Organize Bookmarks. Find the bookmark you just set, and click on the More button. Pick a nice short keyword that's easy to type, like "yahoo".

Setting a keyword gives the bookmark a useful property: if you type that keyword in the URLbar and hit return, Firefox will go straight to that bookmark. If you're a commandline user, that's already a win -- it's easier for some of us to remember a word like "yahoo" than to navigate a bunch of hierarchical bookmarks menus.

Now comes the important part. Replace the term you searched for, banana, with %s in the Location field (figure 1). Go ahead and dismiss the dialog -- you're done with it.

The magic "%s" tells Firefox, "Replace me with a string supplied by the user." You'll supply it by typing it in the URLbar. Try it now. Go to the URLbar -- Control-L is a handy shortcut that takes you there and highlights whatever's there so you can replace it, but doesn't overwrite your X selection in case you want to paste. Type yahoo bookmarklets and hit return. Firefox should take you straight to the Yahoo's search results page for "bookmarklets": http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=bookmarklets. Neat! It even works for multiple search terms and quoted strings.

You can use the Keywords trick to set up bookmarklets for all sorts of different searches, like Google Images at http://images.google.com/images?q=%s, Google Maps at http://maps.google.com/maps?q=%s, and Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/wiki.phtml?search=%s. Getting the Wikipedia search URL is a little tricky, since their search redirects you to a wiki page, not a search results page. Sometimes you have to poke through View->Page Source, or ask around to see if anyone else has already figured out a query.

Simple bookmarklets are also great for developers and QA people who need to access online bug systems. I have bookmarklets for several different Bugzillas: if someone references a Mozilla bug by number, all I have to do is type in mozbug 233853 and it goes straight to https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=233853, while gimpbug 120829 will do a comparable search in GIMP/Gnome's Bugzilla.

These examples all have simple URLs, but they don't have to. I once built up a complex Google query to find XKCD cartoons by keyword: xkcd %s site:xkcd.com -site:forums.xkcd.com -site:fora.xkcd.com -site:blag.xkcd.com. Of course, I saved it as a bookmarklet. Now any time I want to search for a cartoon, all I have to do is type xkcd keywords.

Simple bookmarklets are a great timesaver and a lot of fun -- give them a try! In the next installment, I'll describe more complex bookmarklets, the sort that use Javascript. They're even more powerful!

Akkana Peck is a freelance programmer whose credits include a tour as a Mozilla developer. She's also the author of Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional

This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.

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