Firefox Search Flattens the Bookmark Hierarchy

Incremental bookmark search is the single most important usability improvement Mozilla introduced into Firefox 3. Start typing words or phrases you remember from the title of the page or its URL and Firefox will search your bookmarks and present the matches in a scrollable pop-up window beneath the address bar. Firefox’s bookmark search changes the nature of bookmark access from positional to identity retrieval, which is a massive leap forward in usability.

Firefox's incremental bookmark search flattens the traditional hierarchical folder organization

All major web browsers offer users a hierarchical system for organizing bookmarks. Like files on a PC, bookmarks are stored in a hierarchical system of folders. Some users—especially programmers—like hierarchies and make full use of nested folders to organize their bookmarks. Other users eschew folders altogether and organize their bookmarks linearly by adding each new bookmark to the end of the bookmarks list. Still others—myself included—organize a small number of important bookmarks in folders and organize all other bookmarks in a linear everything else list.

The main reason users don’t like nested bookmark folders is that hierarchies are location-based storage systems: we store information according to the position of the information in the hierarchy. Although it is easy to store information in a hierarchy, it isn’t always easy to remember where we stored that information when we need it. In the end, it is often easier to scan a long list of bookmarks or re-Google the website than trawl through the nested folder structure that made so much sense when we created it.

Firefox’s incremental bookmark search enables users to access a bookmark using the name or address of the bookmarked website—the identity of the bookmark—rather than by its position in the folder hierarchy. The change from positional to identity retrieval of web-browser bookmarks mirrors the change in the way we find websites. In the early days, we found websites through their position in the web by navigating from one website to another, or by searching hierarchical, human-compiled web-page indexes, such as those provided by the first incarnations of Yahoo. Nowadays, we find websites by searching for words and phrases in the content of a page. Search is not only flattening the hierarchical organization of web-browser bookmarks, it is flattening the network structure of the web.

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