When you turn to the Internet in search of information, chances are you fire up Internet Explorer and instantly navigate to your favorite search engine site. However, there’s an alternative that few people take advantage of—the Search Assistant tool built into Internet Explorer 5.x and 6.0. This handy little tool provides you with a way to quickly search for specific content. The Search Assistant also allows you to choose from several of the more popular search engines. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll examine Internet Explorer’s Search Assistant and show you how to make the most of its features and settings.

Accessing the Search Assistant in Windows XP
By default, Windows XP is configured to use the Search Companion, complete with animated character, as Internet Explorer’s search tool. The Search Companion offers search features similar to the Search Assistant, but they’re buried behind the enhanced user interface, and it takes several steps to access them. However, you can still get to the Search Assistant if you wish to experiment with it.

To get to the Search Assistant, access the Search Companion by clicking the Search button on the toolbar. Once the Search Companion window appears, select the Change preferences link. On the next page, choose the Change Internet search behavior link. Then, select the With Classic Internet search option button and click OK. When you do, you’ll be returned to the main Search Companion page.

You must close Internet Explorer and then reload it to enable the Search Assistant. I’ll discuss how to return to the Search Companion in a moment.

Using the Search Assistant
Using the Search Assistant is very straightforward once you know your way around. To access the Search Assistant, you can click the Search button on the toolbar or use the keystroke shortcut [Ctrl][E] or pull down the View menu and select Explorer Bar | Search.

You’ll then see the Explorer Bar, which contains the Search Assistant, appear on the left edge of Internet Explorer, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The Explorer Bar appears on the left edge of the Internet Explorer window.

Change the Search Preview option

By default, the Search Assistant is configured to use the main window as a Search Preview page, which is just another name for a place to display paid advertising. Fortunately, if you scroll down the results window, you’ll find a check box titled Show Search Preview on the right. Just clear it and you’ll never see the Search Preview window again.

You can then enter your search terms in the text box and click Search. When you do, the default search engine—MSN Search— will process your search and display the results within the confines of the Explorer Bar, as shown in Figure B.
Figure B
Having the results remain on the screen lets you quickly investigate each site.

As you can imagine, this layout is helpful for searching the Internet because the search results remain on the screen in the Explorer Bar as you conduct your search in the main window. This lets you quickly investigate each site without a lot of effort.

If you need more results, just click the Next button that appears on the Search Assistant’s toolbar. The same search criteria will be passed along to the next search engine. You can also select from the available search engine sites by clicking the drop-down arrow adjacent to the Next button. This displays a list of all the available search engines. If you want to start a completely new search, just click the New button on the Search Assistant’s toolbar. You can then launch a new search.

Changing the layout

While having the Explorer Bar on the screen makes it easy to view search results, you may feel that giving up a portion of your screen to the Explorer Bar makes it difficult to read the information displayed on a site. If so, you have three options for changing the layout.

First, you can reduce the size of the Explorer Bar. Just hover your mouse pointer over the vertical divider and when it turns into a double-headed arrow, click and drag the divider to the left. Then, when you need to see the results again, just drag the vertical divider to the right.

Second, you can invoke Full Screen mode by pressing [F11] or by pulling down the View menu and selecting the Full Screen command. When you do, the Explorer Bar will slide off the screen to the left, much like the taskbar does when using the Auto Hide feature.

Third, you can actually close the Explorer Bar by clicking the close button found in the upper right corner. To bring back your search results, just click the Search button on the toolbar again.

Searching for specific information
If you’re searching for a specific piece of information, the Search Assistant provides multiple categories that you can use to narrow your search. By default, the Search Assistant displays five categories to choose from. However, if you click the More link in the middle of the Search Assistant, you’ll see a total of seven categories.

In addition to conducting a generic search for Web sites, you can search the Internet for people’s mailing and e-mail addresses, business’ addresses, maps, and pictures. You can even search for words using an online encyclopedia, dictionary, or thesaurus. When you select any one of these categories, the search form changes to allow you to supply the appropriate search parameters.

For example, when you choose the Find a map category, the form provides you with text boxes to enter an address, city, state, and Zip code, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
The Search Assistant provides you with a total of seven categories, and each one provides you with an appropriate search form.

By default, the Search Assistant will store the last 10 searches you’ve performed. If you select the Previous searches option, you’ll see a list of the last 10 keywords you used in any category, so you can easily recreate your search.

Customizing the Search Assistant
If you’re not satisfied with the Search Assistant’s default features, you can click the Customize button on the toolbar to bring up the Customize Search Settings dialog box, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
You can configure how you want the Search Assistant to work.

At the top of this dialog box, you’ll see either two or three option buttons, depending on the version of Windows you’re running. If you’re running Windows XP, you’ll see the three shown in Figure D. If you’re running any other version of Windows with Internet Explorer 5.x or Internet Explorer 6, you’ll only see the first two option buttons.

As you see, these buttons let you disable the Search Assistant in favor of another configuration. For instance, the second option allows you to choose one specific search engine. Selecting this option will replace all the configuration options in the dialog box with a single drop-down list from which you can select one of the available search engines. If you’re running Windows XP, you can select the third option to reconfigure Internet Explorer to use Windows XP’s Search Companion.

If you decide to stick with the Search Assistant, the Customize Search Settings dialog box lets you configure each one of the categories simply by scrolling down through the dialog box and selecting options. You can remove any of the main categories from the Search Assistant display by clearing the check box adjacent to the category heading.

In addition, you can use the check boxes under each category heading to choose which of the listed search engines you want to use. As you do, keep in mind that this is a Microsoft product, so most of the choices are Microsoft sites, such as MSN, Expedia, Encarta, and Corbis. However, Microsoft enlisted several respected search engine companies as partners, such as Lycos, Alta Vista, and Yahoo. So you have some choices beside Microsoft sites.

In addition to choosing which search engines you want to use, you can also change the order in which the Search Assistant uses them when you click the Next button to get a second opinion. To do so, just select the search engine name and click either the Move Up or Move Down button.

At the bottom of the Customize Search Settings dialog box, you’ll find a Reset button that will replace all the default settings should you wish to.

You can’t add more search engines to the Search Assistant

If you’re like most folks, the first question that popped into your head when you saw the limited number of sites that you can choose from in the Customize Search Settings dialog box is: How can I add more? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to add additional sites to the Search Assistant’s list of choices.

Customizing the Autosearch feature
As you may know, Internet Explorer allows you to perform quick searches simply by typing a keyword in the Address Bar. This is called Autosearch. If you’ve used this feature before, you know that, by default, Autosearch automatically uses the MSN Search engine.

But at the bottom of the Customize Search Settings dialog box, you’ll find a button titled Autosearch Settings. Clicking this button reveals the Customize Autosearch Settings dialog box shown in Figure E.

Figure E
The Customize Autosearch Settings dialog box lets you configure how you want Internet Explorer’s Autosearch feature to work.

You can select a specific search engine as well as specify how you want Internet Explorer to handle the search. When you access the Choose a search provider drop-down list, you’ll discover a very comprehensive list of search sites, as shown below (it’s unfortunate that Microsoft didn’t include all these search engine choices in the Customize Search Settings dialog box):

  • MSN
  • LookSmart
  • Google
  • InfoSpace
  • AOL Search
  • Yahoo!
  • AltaVista
  • AskJeeves
  • Netscape Search

When you access the When Searching drop-down list, you’ll find four additional options. The default, Just Display Results In The Main Window, is self-explanatory, as are two of the others: Do Not Search From The Address Bar and Just Go To The Most Likely Site. However, the fourth option, Display Results, And Go To The Most Likely Site, provides you with a pretty interesting combination. When you use this option, you can type any keyword you want in the Address Bar, just as you normally would. Then, the Explorer Bar opens and displays the list of results, while at the same time the main window connects to the most likely site.

Girafa: An alternative search tool
If the idea of the Search Assistant intrigues you, then you may be interested in investigating an Internet Explorer add-on called Girafa. A search aid, Girafa is designed to work very similarly to the Search Assistant in that it exists in an Explorer Bar-like window. However, instead of providing you with text-based results, it shows you visual previews of the sites’ home pages in a thumbnail presentation. You can read a review about Girafa at WebAttack.com. You can also learn more about Girafa on the product’s home page.