Prefetch Search Results With Browster

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A new take on an old idea may help you speed up your access to search-engine results and other pages you commonly use on the Web.

The idea is called prefetching. It might save you a lot of the time you now spend opening and closing browser windows.

How To Get Ahead On The Web

The company behind this effort is called Browster. Its product, Browster 1.0, downloads the pages that are linked to in Google, Yahoo, and a few other popular sites. You can also use Browster manually on any link. Here's how it works:

Prefetching links. After you install Browster, which is a free download, the program watches your browser for search results from Google and other sites. When a search results page is being displayed, Browster downloads each link in the background.

Point and shoot. A small "lightning bolt icon" (shown above) is displayed by Browster next to each link as soon as the associated page has finished downloading. When you hover your mouse pointer over the icon, a secondary window opens up, containing the full-size image of the resulting page without you having to wait for it to load.

Any link, any time. Although Browster works at present only with a limited number of search engines, it can be put to work on almost any visible link. Hold down the Alt key in Windows while you hover your mouse pointer over any link, and Browster will open the link in a secondary window for you.

Now you see it, now you don't. Browster's secondary windows disappear as soon as you move your mouse pointer out of them or right-click the mouse within them. This allows you to scan several pages quickly, moving your mouse from icon to icon until you find the exact page you want. (Right-clicking the mouse in Windows actually should open a "context menu" with choices such as Close, Open In New Window, and so forth. But Browster's authors wanted to avoid the need for Windows conventions such as Close buttons, favoring quick mouse motions instead.)

An Idea Whose Time Might Come Again

Browster is being shown to the public for the first time today at Demo, a respected product-introduction conference being held in Scottsdale, Ariz. Browster's CEO, Scott Milener, gave me a personal trial so I could see how his company's new technology works.

Prefetching, to be sure, is not a totally new idea. I remember several software products five or six years ago that offered to speed your surfing by background-downloading all of the links on any Web page you happened to be viewing. For some reason, few (if any) of these applications seem to have survived.

One possible explanation for the failures of the earlier programs is that prefetching isn't as simple as it looks. For example:

No click fraud, please. If Browster downloaded the pages behind the "sponsored links" in Google and other search engines, each advertiser would have to pay for click-through pages that no human actually saw. This would count as "click fraud" (a problem I described in this space on Sept. 21, 2004) and eventually get Browster banned.

No spyware, please. Because some Web sites try to download "adware" or "spyware' to users' PCs without their knowledge, it isn't a good idea for Browster or any similar cacheing mechanism to simply download every link in sight. That's why the company is concentrating on prefetching links that are displayed in the major search engines, which at least have minimal standards over the pages they include in their indexes.

No pop-ups, please. Browster is able to open secondary windows despite any "pop-up stoppers" that might be installed on a PC, the company says. The technology Browster uses, however, requires that one edge of a secondary window must touch the original location of the user's mouse pointer. Users cannot, for example, position a Google window and a secondary window side-by-side on-screen. The secondary window must cover part or all of the Google window.

Despite the challenges, Milener feels enough users will find Browster useful to make his company viable. Some Web sites, he points out, disable the browser's Back button, making it hard for surfers to easily jump from one search result to another. Browster's secondary windows never have this problem, Milener claims.

A Few Flies In The Ointment

Browster isn't a charity, of course. It's a business, and there are, in fact, some caveats to be kept in mind before you download and install the program:

Internet Explorer 6 only. At the present time, Browster is a "browser helper object (BHO)," a technology that works only in Windows and only in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 browser. Milener says versions of Browster for Firefox and other browsers are planned.

Roll your own prefetching. For those who are big Firefox users today, a limited form of prefetching is already available. Browsers based on Mozilla 1.2 and higher, including Firefox 1.0 and Netscape 7.01 and up, can download any link that the HTML of a page directs them to prefetch. See Mozilla's link prefetching FAQ and Webmonkey's site optimization tutorial for details.

Ad-supported (without adware). To support its business model, Browster displays text ads (similar to Google's sponsored links) in a small framed area atop any secondary window that's displayed. These text ads currently come from the ePilot Advertising Network, an independent competitor to Google. Milener says this is the software's only use of ads and that Browster doesn't install any adware to a PC to display ads at any other time.

While Browster is currently in a beta phase, the company expects to release a fully-tested 1.0 version of the product by the end of March. A more advanced version, which will have more security features built in and natively support more Web sites, is expected by the third quarter.

A Nice Google Enhancement

Browster has no contractual agreements with Google, Yahoo, and the other sites it tries to enhance. Milener says, however, "I don't think they'll be upset." He feels the ability of users to skim through link after link in search-engine results will "increase the time people will spend on their sites."

Browster, in fact, strikes me as a technology that Google might well acquire in order to build prefetching into its search results natively. Asked whether Google might buy his company, Milener replied with a grin, "Hopefully."

Will Browster dramatically speed up your use of search engine results? It just might, if you often hop from page to page within a long list of links. To try the beta for yourself, visit Browster.com.

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