Firefox extension face-off
Some extensions are so darn useful out here in Enlightened Userland that they made them twice – multiple extensions serving the same basic purpose – so which should you be using? The pat consultant’s answer is “the one that best serves your needs based on a combination of user interface and functionality”, which assumes you have the time to install, review and rationalise numerous options. Most of us instead hit the Mozilla extensions download centre and head for the front of the most-popular queue. This is a shame, because not only is popularity a poor metric for real-world usefulness, but you risk missing up-and-coming new products that work differently and often better. If popularity were the be-all and end-all, you’d never have tried Firefox in the first place. That’s why I’ve been looking at two extensions that claim to change the way Google works, and make it a simpler, quicker and more effective experience.
CustomizeGoogle (www.customizegoogle.com) has been popular since it was released about a year ago, with dozens of user reviews at Mozilla Add-ons attracting a maximum five-star rating. And with good reason, because it offers what users of alternative tools love best; namely, control. The premise is simple: add information you do want to a Google search page, while removing the information you don’t want. Under “do want”, you have features like adding links to results from competing engines, including news services when searching for news; the ability to use Google Mail and Google Calendar securely via https; adding links to the WayBack Machine; using a fixed font for Google Mail; and quickly adding search-result URLs to a social bookmark manager like del.icio.us or digg.
On the “don’t want” side, CustomizeGoogle will remove all ads from search results, remove the image-copying restrictions in Google Book search, and block Google Analytics cookies. And it’s this “don’t want” stuff that causes some concerns, such as the moral arguments about biting the search engine that feeds you – blocking the already discreet adverts does just that. My concern focuses more on the fact that blocking Google Mail ads could result in the service not working (recently reported by some users) or, more seriously, in Google yanking your account for breaching its Ts & Cs. It’s your call whether removing a handful of small text-only adverts is worth these risks, but ad spamming isn’t something I’d ever accuse Google of.
When it comes to protecting my privacy, though, I’m a little more bolshie. Around 250,000 sites are using Google Analytics (aka Urchin), a cookie-based feature that provides information about your site usage, including your IP address. Since these aren’t third-party cookies but kosher first-party ones, blocking them is an all-or-nothing matter, and wholesale blocking of cookies isn’t a bright idea if you want to retain online interactivity and functionality these days. CustomizeGoogle has an option that just blocks Urchin’s cookies (all of them) on any website, which is fine, but I’m not convinced it provides much more than the illusion of anonymity. Your IP address is still sent to both Google Analytics and the originating website, and if they’re using AdSense there’s a totally separate cookie sent anyway. Surely, you can achieve a more effective result by simply adding 127.0.01 www.google-analytics.com to your HOSTS file. CustomizeGoogle has a lot of options, but in my humble opinion most of them are window dressing in terms of real-world usefulness.