The Evolution of Bookmarking — Bookmarks, Firefox, and del.icio.us

Saving bookmarks for websites has dramatically changed during the last years. The current rapid development looks even like an evolutionary jump.

When I started saving bookmarks for websites many years ago I had only about 200 that I could easily organize in a directory with not more then three levels of folders. This served well the purpose at the time. Later I started using AltaVista to search the web. Eventually I switched to Google as primary search engine because Google’s format of the search results made it more successful to choose websites that provided the information I was searching for. The big difference was that Google’s two lines of sample text containing the search terms showed the context while other search engines at the time were lacking this critical piece of information.

When Google became popular most people saw it as a new way of getting to websites and bookmarking became a less interesting feature of browsers. All the search engines were very successful when the information I was looking for were sufficiently characterized by a few words. So, it was always very easy to find the latest version of a popular program for download. But in many cases it was impossible to get an article back that I had read a few weeks earlier if there was no specific combination of words that could be used to filter it out.

The bookmarking eventually returned but the meaning had changed. Before, bookmarks were primarily used to revisit websites but at this point in time they became for many people the permanent history of evaluated websites. It was possible to go back to an article and get the information whenever it was needed. This is different from the common history of a browser that contains just any website and a large history can make it very difficult to find a particular website.

The number of my bookmarks started growing faster than before. The effort of organizing them in a directory became eventually too much, so that the bookmarks became just a list that was lacking any kind of context. All conventional bookmark managers still try to attack this problem by reducing the effort for organizing the bookmarks in a directory. But besides the effort there was another problem of directories. It was almost always possible to place a bookmark in multiple places of the directory tree but not in a unique place. When I saved it in one directory it could be that I would search for it a few months later in a different place. This is not only true for bookmarks but also for files or any information organized in a directory. A few commercial bookmark managers addressed this problem by using a database and keywords for each bookmark. But adding bookmarks was not very practical because it required to scroll through the long list of keywords in order add a few to the bookmark.

A few years ago Mozilla introduced a search bar in the bookmarks manager. Well, it was searching the titles only and titles do not necessarily contain the context that was important to me. For example, a website with the title “The Evolution of Bookmarks” would show up in the search results when I searched for “bookmark” but it would not in a search for “Firefox”. So, the hack was to bookmark the website and to add quickly the context that was important to me, e.g. “The Evolution of Bookmarks – Firefox GUI search annotation”. This changed dramatically the way I used bookmarks. Eventually, I spent a few hours and converted most directories into this pattern. The few remaining directories are exclusively used for the bookmark sidebar that contains frequently visited websites. A directory with main bookmarks at the top level and one or two sublevels provide a visual reminder and quick access.

Saving bookmarks and adding context information helps to bring back the websites quickly when the information is needed. I started thinking about an interface that would provide the functionality needed to make adding words as context easier, less time consuming, less vulnerable to spelling errors, and remind me of words I had used before. A long list with keywords with a scrollbar was not very appealing but multiple lines of space separated words that I could click at in order to add them or to remove would improve usability I thought. Also, the bookmark should show up at the sidebar or at the bottom of the screen as soon as I load the website so that it reminds me of previous visits, provides the context I had added, and any notes I made about the website.

Well, it turned out that this wish list was partially realized in del.icio.us, an online service for social bookmarking. Joshua Schechter has designed an excellent interface to add bookmarks and enter tags as context. There is no unnecessary link or text on the interface. It provides all tags that were entered before as links so that entering by keyboard and by the mouse can be combined. Del.icio.us has the very best interface I have ever seen for a social bookmarking service. I’m sure some people will argue about that but for me the clear design of del.icio.us follows the wonderful principles of simplicity that are also used by Apple or Google. Using one of the famous bookmarklets for adding bookmarks to del.icio.us makes it very similar to saving it in the local bookmark manager.

The major difference between a tree hierarchy and tagging seems to me that looking at the hierarchy while selecting items provides some guidance in choosing the next item. This reinforces the relationships within the directory tree to some degree while the current tagging systems misses any relationship between tags – a critical issue that was also addressed in a whitepaper by Hans Reiser because it is important for the next generation of ReiserFS file system on Linux. Potential solutions to this problem include the definition of main tags and the support of tag combinations. It would be helpful if the user could define the main tags that show up in an extra line on top to reinforce the use of main categories. A second line could show the tags that have been used in combination with the selected main tag(s).

In the future, browsers will hopefully adopt the tagging of bookmarks and provide a faster response time than any web service can. Synchronizing public bookmarks with a web service such as del.icio.us could combine the advantages of local bookmark managers with social bookmarking and guaranty the privacy of bookmarks that are not public. Maybe we will see in one of the next Firefox versions a bookmark manager with an interface similar to the del.icio.us interface or even more advanced. The bookmarks in the sidebar fit more in the concept of a web panel than into the flat list of tagged bookmarks and could be separated if necessary. The integration of annotations and citations would be a big step forward. This does not mean that bookmarks and annotations need to share a database but bookmarks, tags, annotations, and website management icons for allowing software updates, allowing popup window, etc. should appear together in the user interface to show everything that is associated with a website. To show any saved information about a website as soon as the website is opened would make a big difference because it would provide reminders and annotations that can guide the browsing. What once was a bookmark manager may become the information management system that keeps together links, annotations, tags, existing copies of websites, and other meta-data. This looks very promising to me and could become the next generation of Firefox to “rediscover the web”.

Related blogs:
Rethinking the User Interface For Bookmarks — Two Different Purposes May Require Two Different Interfaces
Advanced Tagging — Hierarchical And Ordered Tags
Firefox Hacks :: Tagging Bookmarks
Firefox Hacks :: Search Simultaneously in Firefox, del.icio.us, and Archived Bookmarks
Is Yahoo going to be del.icio.us?

External articles and blogs:
Security and Privacy Risks of Google’s new Firefox Extention “Safe Browsing for Firefox”

My related bookmarks at del.icio.us

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2 Responses to “The Evolution of Bookmarking — Bookmarks, Firefox, and del.icio.us”

  1. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  2. Directory submission Says:

    Hi. I just wanted to let you know that some parts of your site are difficult to read for me, as I’m color blind. I am afflicted by deuteranopia, however there are more varieties of color blindness which will also get issues. I can understand the largest part of the website Okay, and the areas I have problems with I am able to read by using a special browser. All the same, it’d be cool if you would remember us color-blind folk when doing the next site revamp. Thank you.

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