Seven Steps to Mastering Your Web Browser

Like it or not, most of us live in our web browsers these days. Because we interface with so many of our usual haunts using a browser, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that you should be really, really good at operating it. Thing is, the stock installation of any browser is only telling you half the story; it’s perfectly serviceable right out of the box, but there is a metric poop-ton of additional functionality and efficiency available. Thankfully, nerdy goofballs like myself have, mostly through trial and error, stumbled upon a host of great ways to make your browser work better and faster.

  1. Learn the Keyboard Shortcuts – If you only read another few sentences of this post, make it this section. Anybody who knows me even a little knows that I actively dislike the mouse and studies have shown that the more you can do without taking your hand off of the keyboard, the better off you’ll be. And I’m not talking about the rookie stuff like Cut, Copy and Paste – I’m talking navigation whole web pages, clicking links, jumping between fields and cycling through tabs, all without ever touching the rodent. Here are the standard shortcuts available for Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome and, just for the sake of being complete, Internet Explorer. The best way to put these to actual use is to pick two or three of them that you’d use frequently and focus on learning them. Then, do it again with three more until your browser cowers at the sight of you and your mouse is covered in cobwebs.
  2. Find Useful Extensions/Plug-ins/Add-ons – Most modern web browsers support some type of plug-in or extension architecture, even Internet Explorer. Firefox is arguably the strongest in this area, which is to say that it has the greatest number of available add-ons and it makes installing them incredibly easy, but Chrome and Safari both sport the ability to add functionality using extensions. You can browse the directory of add-ons and extensions for Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome. If you use IE, then you’re going to have to use Google to search for specific plugins since they don’t (to my knowledge) maintain any type of centralized plugin registry. Or you could switch to a browser that doesn’t suck, which I’d recommend :) (N.B.: If you’re a web developer, grab this, this and this. Right now. No, now.)
  3. Ditch Your Start Page – All of the major browsers now support tabs and also allow you to configure what page is loaded when you open a new tab. Most people set it to something like Google or maybe their Google Homepage, others will choose something like Yahoo or another news outlet of some kind. You should open your browser’s preferences right now and set that page to “about:blank”, which means “don’t load a page at all”. Think about it for a second – when was the last time you opened a new tab and fully intended to visit the site that loaded by default? Even if you wanted to search for something, it’s *far* easier to strike a couple of keys and type into the search bar at the top than to actually visit Every time you open a new tab and is loaded, that’s 2-3 seconds than you don’t have to spend waiting for it to complete because about:blank loads instantaneously.
  4. Poke Around in the Preferences and Configuration Options – Again, most normal people don’t spend a great deal of time perusing the various configuration options made available by their browser of choice, but there’s some real control to be had for those daring enough to get their hands dirty. Things like an excessively large cache threshold, default download location and password handling are the kinds of things you can control within most browser preferences, so get in there and dig around. Warning, though: if you don’t know what an option is/does, you may want to consult the Google or your local dork before changing it.
  5. Bookmarklets. Bookmarklets. Bookmarklets – A bookmarklet is, as far as the browser is concerned, the same thing is a regular bookmark. The difference is, instead of loading a URL when activated, it executes a chunk of JavaScript code that does interesting things with the page you’re currently looking at. Some popular services that support bookmarklets are Instapaper (which is unspeakably awesome), Google Reader (for both subscribing to neaw feeds and commenting on and sharing arbitrary web pages), Pinboard/Delicious (two web-based bookmarking services – I use the former, for what it’s worth), Tumblr/Posterous (two blogging systems that I’ve discussed at length on this site) and many, many others. These little miracles are what make seamless interaction with web services not only possible, but extremely easy.
  6. Block Flash – I’m not normally one to harp to badly on Flash as I do think it has some legitimate uses, but sadly, it also has some very common illegitimate uses (usually advertisements). The fact of the matter is that whenever you load a page that contains Flash, a separate application must launch in the background to play the content and, a lot of the time, the Flash player can slow your browser or even your computer to a molasses-soaked crawl. Your best bet is to get an extension for your browser that allows you to selectively enable and whitelist sites where you don’t mind the use of Flash (like YouTube), but blocks the rest. For Firefox, grab FlashBlock, Safari users should check out ClickToFlash and Google Chrome users should grab FlashBlock. If you use Internet Explorer, see my previous comment about switching to a usable browser.
  7. Get Better Password Management - I won’t belabor the need for strong, unique passwords here, but you should have them and you should also have a good way of managing them. If you use a Mac 100% of the time, then the beyond-awesome 1Password should be your very next stop. Otherwise, definitely get your mitts on KeePass. Either way you go, entering your login information for a website you’ve visited before is a matter of striking a couple of keys instead of trying desperately to remember which variation of “LoveWanda” you used when you created this particular account.

Implement all seven of these steps and you will be head and shoulders above 85% of the technology professionals I’ve met and 99% of the normal user crowd. As I mentioned, the browser has become our workspace in many cases, so we owe it to ourselves and to the machine that signs our paychecks to squeeze every last drop out of it that we can. Or, at least, try.

Photo by Dunechaser

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  1. Great post! Completely agree 100%! My wife tells me that I have ruined her because I have taught her to do these same things and now she can’t stand to watch others use their browser soo inefficiently. : )

  2. Nuno Campos says:

    With the introduction of Google Instant I reinstated as the homepage on my laptop. It’s better than the search bar.

  3. Nice article. One valuable bookmarklet you may want to check out is Readability. It strips away all the junk on any article you happen to be reading and lets you focus on the content. I use it many, many times every day. For the record, I am not affiliated with it (but wish I was, because it’s awesome).

  4. Pedro Leitão says:

    Kinda noobish for not mentioning one of the best browsers avaliable, Opera.
    Also, having speed dial (i use it mainly on firefox, opera and chrome) is vastly superior to about:blank, because i almost never need to write urls or even have bookmarks.

    Also, you never even say why the mouse is so bad. All this pseudo-nerdy stuff of ditch the mouse for the sake of looking a pro is dumb. The mouse is useful, simple and fast. Mouse commands in Opera are as fast as any keyboard shortcut.

    Just get your facts straight. And support your opinions with something besides “mouse sucks”.

    • Well, I don’t mean to sound like a dick, but I’ve been surrounded (physically and virtually) by some extremely well-traveled and intelligent developers for nearly a decade and I’ve never, ever encountered anybody who used Opera. Like, not once (as far as I know). A quick Google search landed me at this page, which says that Opera holds a whopping 2.2% of the market. I guess ignoring fringe, low-adoption browsers makes me a “noob”.

      I’ve also never heard of speed dial – it appears to be a Firefox extension. I don’t see how it’s any better than a few simple TextExpander recipes, though.

      I don’t know what sort of janky voodoo Opera does with it’s mouse gestures, but if you can prove to me that it’s faster than striking Ctrl+C to copy some text, I’ll happily change my tune. Pretty sure it won’t pan out like that, though.

      Also, please point me to the facts that I don’t have straight. And I didn’t say the mouse sucks (which, incidentally, it does) – just that using the keyboard is faster (because it is).

      • Interesting post, well written. Though I too would suggest an addon like Fast Dial or Speed Dial (both Firefox only i guess). Fast Dial start page loads just as instantly as about:blank and you can customize your most visited websites to be displayed for quick click and go.

  5. Can anyone enlighten me with a few reasons to switch to Instapaper. Heard a lot about it lately but AFAIK even Instapaper requires registration now, so how is it any different than others like