At first glance, a new Firefox feature called Suggest doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Type into the browser’s address bar, and you might see suggested links from Wikipedia or shopping results from eBay. In the future, you might be able to peek at the weather, or perform quick mathematical calculations, similar to what Google offers in its Chrome browser today. Even if those features save you some time, they won’t really change how you browse.
But Selena Deckelmann, Mozilla’s senior vice president for Firefox, says the new suggestions are just the first step toward a broader goal of curating the web. Eventually, she’s hoping the browser will help users discover new websites and find what they’re looking for straight from the address bar, without having to visit Google or another search engine first.
“People are struggling with information overload,” Deckelmann says. “Firefox Suggest will be a trustworthy guide to finding the best of the web.”
It’s also a new way for Mozilla to make money, one that doesn’t involve getting paid to make Google its default search engine. The listings from eBay, for instance, are sponsored, and users can expect more sponsored address bar listings in the future—provided they don’t provoke a major backlash.
Adding new search options
The address bar might seem like an odd place to host such an ambitious mission. In most browsers, it serves as a means to an end—a place to type some text and hit Enter—rather than a destination unto itself.
But Deckelmann says Firefox users are accustomed to treating the address bar (or the “Awesome Bar,” as Mozilla calls it) a bit differently. Firefox’s bar already includes buttons at the bottom to search on specific sites such as Amazon, Wikipedia, and eBay, along with shortcuts for searching your open tabs, bookmarks, and browsing history.
“Our user research tells us that people are already familiar with the Awesome Bar,” she says. By adding new features to this section—rather than, say, shunting them off to another part of browser—she hopes users will have yet another reason to linger before moving onto their usual search results.
Still, a handful of site-specific shortcuts alone won’t make Firefox Suggest all that useful. Deckelmann says Mozilla will be adding more sources over time, and hopes it’ll become a curated way to showcase websites that are too easily lost in the algorithms of search engines.
Ultimately, Deckelmann envisions local search as a strong component, with community members being able to moderate the kinds of results that come up. She points to Front Porch Forum as a source of inspiration, noting how that site uses tools like time-delayed posting and paid moderation to create a calmer Nextdoor alternative.
“A hugely ambitious goal we have is to figure out how to have a distributed model for making a guide to the good web,” she says. “We envision a vibrant ecosystem—partners around the globe—recommending things on the internet in a really different way than it is now.”
Lighting a fire
Mozilla’s foray into search-like features comes at a time when other privacy-minded rivals are nipping at its heels. Brave recently launched a private search engine to complement its web browser, and DuckDuckGo plans to launch a desktop browser this year to go along with its mobile browser and private search engine.
Like those companies, Mozilla is also looking for ways to diversify its business. The vast majority of its revenues currently come from search providers, who pay to make themselves the default in Firefox. The largest of those partners is Google, which provided 88% of the foundation’s search revenues in 2019 according to its most recent financial report. Not counting a one-time legal settlement with Yahoo that year, Google alone provided 81% of Mozilla’s total revenues.
Deckelmann says the default search business has been both a blessing and a curse for Mozilla. While it provided a solid foundation on which to build Firefox, it also held the group back from exploring new business models.
“It never lit a fire under anybody’s ass,” she says.
In recent years, Mozilla has started branching out. It added sponsored content to the Firefox home screen in 2017, and started offering subscription VPN service last year. Deckelmann says the goal is to build both a strong subscription-based business and one that capitalizes on its reach with non-paying users. (As of last week, Firefox had more than 200 million monthly active users worldwide.)
Monetizing users through sponsored content comes with its own risks, though. Mozilla’s initial attempt to introduce sponsored slots on the Firefox home screen caused a backlash in 2014 before the group reintroduced them four years later. And with Firefox Suggest, Mozilla will require new privacy permissions from users, as it’ll need to collect more data to accurately count when users click on sponsored eBay listings.
Deckelmann says Firefox won’t use this data to build a profile of users, who will also have to opt in to use Firefox Suggest in the first place. And as with sponsored home screen content, users will be always able to turn the suggestions off. It’s another way in which Firefox is experimenting with the whole concept, gauging users’ reactions before deciding what to do next.
“Our first steps will be to interact with users, ask for their permission explicitly, and then go from there,” she says.