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How to customize your Google Chrome and Chromebook searches

How to customize your Google Chrome and Chromebook searches


Supercharge your URL bar

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

I just reviewed the Google Pixelbook and I think it’s great — but Chrome OS is much more limited than either macOS or Windows when it comes to customizing how the core OS works. One of my favorite tools on the Mac is called Alfred, a tool that pops up a little search bar that can do basically anything you can think to program into it. I use it so much I have replaced my Caps Lock key with it and when I use a Chromebook, I miss it terribly.

But! Chromebooks have a similar text box, it’s the Google search bar. But it’s not as powerful as Alfred when it comes to customizing stuff. Luckily, Chrome has a hidden little feature that lets you customize how that search box works with different rules.

If you do a certain kind of internet search over and over again, customizing your search engines in Chrome can make that much easier. For me, obviously, it’s searching The Verge, but I also have custom engines set up for YouTube, Amazon, news from the past week, and a few more things.

So, for example, when I want to search Amazon for something, I can just type “az battery” in my Chrome bar or in the Chromebook search bar and it just opens Amazon and searches for that thing.

Those customizations aren’t just limited to the Google search bar on Chromebooks. Basically, as long as you’re logged into Chrome, your customizations for the search bar will sync across to any Chrome Browser you’re using. So whether you use a Chromebook or just use the Chrome browser, here’s how to supercharge your searches for the stuff you use most often. (Note, however, that these settings don’t sync to Chrome on mobile nor to the Google app on mobile, which is annoying.)

Step One: find the Manage search engines setting

The first thing you have to do is actually find the darn setting you want. In Chrome, click the three-dot menu and go to settings, then scroll down to “Search engine” and click on “Manage search engines.” You can also just type “engine” in the search bar at the top of the settings, if you want.

When you click in, you’ll probably see an absolutely bogglingly large list of search engines listed. “Don’t I just use Google?” you may ask. Yes, but here’s what Chrome is doing: it keeps an eye on the websites you visit most and if it understands how to search those sites, it will eventually just add them to this list automatically.

What this list does is set up the ability to do more than just “Google it.” So, for example, if you have visited 9to5Mac a bunch and then type “ iPhone,” Chrome will limit that search to just that website.

Though it’s tempting, I do not recommend messing around with the “default search” section. You could, in theory, put some other search engine like Bing or DuckDuckGo in here, but generally speaking you should leave it alone. But, now that you’re here, it’s time to get customizing the other engines.

Step Two: clean up (or don’t)

This is an optional step, but I went through and manually removed a ton of sites from this list, so I could have an easier time seeing what search options I actually want. You have to click the three-dot menu next to each item and click “Remove from list” to eliminate it.

But you don’t have to do this. For one, it’s annoying that Google adds a ton of sites here automatically, so it’ll take forever. For another, even after you do it, a bunch of sites will get re-added later. Lastly, I don’t think having a million of these custom search engines in here hurts anything or slows anything down.

It’s just helpful to see what you’ve got saved. Bluntly, Google’s tools for managing this stuff are so basic that you’re going to get annoyed at some point in this process. Just a fair warning.

Step Three: do a test search

Pick the thing you want to search and then... go search the thing. For this example, I’m using Amazon. You just go to the website and type a search into the box. I recommend typing “test search” in.

One you do the search, go look at the URL. Somewhere in that mess of & and # and % and whatever, you will actually see your “test search” phrase. Amazon’s looks like this:

Now, go to that URL and edit it, right there in the browser URL bar, and change “test search” to “%s” (no quotes). “%s” is Chrome’s way of saying “the search term goes here” for custom searches. Don’t hit enter after you swap it, just put in %s and copy it, it will look like this:

Step Four: add your custom search

Go back to your “Manage search engines” screen and click add. There are three fields, here’s how they work.

Search Engine: This is the text you’ll see in the URL bar on the browser when you do the custom search. Put whatever description makes sense to you here.

Keyword: This is how you’ll trigger your custom search. Chrome usually defaults to making it the full name of a website, but that’s annoying. I always pick something short. So for Amazon, I’ve chosen “az.” I have a ton of these, and I have developed a little system for my codes so they’re easier to remember. I’m going to post a bunch of my favorites at the bottom of this article.

URL with %s in place of query: That URL that you copied in the last step? Paste it here.

When you’re done, click save!

Step Five: Try it!

Fire up a browser tab or hit the search button on your Chromebook and try your new search out. Use space between your keyword and your search term. In the browser bar, as soon as you hit space the bar should show the Search Engine name you chose. On a Chromebook, you won’t get that visual feedback, but it should still work.

Some of my favorite custom searches

This tool has saved me a lot of extra keystrokes and time. I’ve set up a bunch of time-limited Google searches so I don’t have to manually dig into the “Search Tools” field, for example. I’ve also set up direct searches into a lot of other web services I use all the time. Here are just a few examples, as you can see I kind of ended up setting up a little system to group them in my mind:

  • gm: a Google search that’s just limited to links from the past month.
  • gw: a Google search limited to the last week
  • gd: A Google search limited to the last 24 hours
  • gh: A Google search limited to just the last hour
  • t: A Twitter search
  • tu: Open the profile for a specific user

Something interesting I want to point out about that last one: it’s not technically just a search. It’s just a URL. That means you can use this trick to quickly open any webpage where you know it has a variable URL, but you don’t want to bother with a bookmark for it. So if you’re a hardcore reddit user, for example, you could set up a reddit shortcut to open up the latest posts in a subreddit.

Because reddit has a pretty stable URL structure for its “New,” “Hot,” and “Top” sections, you could set up a little system to jump you directly into the section that you want.

This is pretty close to what I do when I want to jump to a specific place on my website, The Verge. The basics are the same for any URL and for most of the searches you might do on the web: if you find yourself clicking the same darn buttons over and over again, it might be easier to just set up a keyword for it in Chrome. Give it a try!