Microsoft's MSN Internet division has developed a search toolbar that users can add to their Web browsers via a free download.
The MSN Toolbar's main feature is its search form, from which users can perform Web searches. It also provides shortcuts to MSN services, such as the Hotmail email service, the MSN Messenger instant messaging service and the My MSN customisable home page for the MSN Web portal.
The MSN Toolbar can also be configured to block Web pop-up ads, which annoy many users. Users who choose to turn on the pop-up blocker can tweak it to allow certain ads to be displayed. The toolbar also features a Highlight Viewer, which highlights the search term in pages that are retrieved after running a query from the search form.
The toolbar, which is in beta mode now, sits underneath the browser's address bar, and is similar to competing toolbars from rivals Google and Yahoo. The Google and Yahoo toolbars also have pop-up blocker and keyword highlighting features.
Once installed, the toolbar will be updated automatically by Microsoft without the need for further downloads.
Search toolbars had become very popular tools for Internet users, because they enhanced the Web navigation experience by eliminating clicks for searching and by creating permanent buttons in the browser for frequently-used services and sites, an analyst at The Yankee Group, Patrick Mahoney, said.
"These toolbars are effective," he said.
Meanwhile, the toolbar provider scored a marketing coup by nabbing a prominent piece of screen real estate in users' Web browsers, he said. "From a branding and marketing perspective, it's extremely valuable for the provider," Mahoney said.
Although Microsoft was arriving at the party after its rivals - Lycos, InfoSpace and Ask Jeeves' Teoma were others who launched search toolbars prior to Microsoft - it was in a position to attract many users thanks to its toolbar's shortcuts to popular MSN services, he said.
"It's a good competitive move," Mahoney said.