Mozilla tests Firefox add-on that steers users toward serendipity

The new 'Advance' add-on takes into account a user's browsing history to recommend other sites to explore.

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Mozilla has launched a test of a new Firefox add-on that recommends sites based on the user's current and past browsing.

The add-on, dubbed "Advance," was the latest in the Test Pilot project that Mozilla has run, under that name and others, since 2015. "Test Pilot is a way for you to try out experimental features and let us know what you think," said Nick Nguyen, vice president of Firefox, in a May 2016 blog post.

A current list of Test Pilot experiments can be found on this Mozilla site.

Advance adds a sidebar on the left of the Firefox window with a two-part recommendation: "Read Next" and "For You." The former highlights websites the technology thinks complement the content of the current tab, while the latter recommends sites/pages based on a user's longer-tail browser history.

The idea behind Advance, Mozilla said, was to restore serendipity to browsing rather than treat the activity as strictly utilitarian. "With Advance we're taking you back to our Firefox roots and the experience that started everyone surfing the web," Mozilla contended in a post introducing the add-on. "...That time when the World Wide Web was uncharted territory and we could freely discover new topics and ideas online."

Recommendations are generated by Laserlike, a California-based startup founded by a trio of former Google engineers. Billed as an "interest search engine," Laserlike uses the user's browsing history to craft its suggestions. Firefox puts up a permission dialog box prior to the add-on's installation to make sure everyone is aware that data is transmitted from the browser to Laserlike's servers.

Not surprisingly - since Mozilla pitches privacy as a key advantage of Firefox - the Advance add-on comes with embedded controls that let the user pause the data collection, download the data sent to Laserlike for examination, or request that said data be deleted from Laserlike's systems.

Advance is not the first attempt by Mozilla to add browsing recommendations to Firefox. A Test Pilot project called "Activity Stream" in 2016 placed thumbnails of both frequently-visited sites and selected past pages from the browser's history and bookmark lists onto the new tab page. (Activity Stream "graduated" from test status when Mozilla added it to Firefox with the November 2016 launch of Quantum, the name chosen to denote a major browser refit.)

Mozilla also integrated Pocket more tightly with Firefox as of Quantum and uses that page-sharing and read-later service to display recommended stories on the new tab page. In April, Mozilla said it was easing into adding sponsored stories - if not ads per se, then what the magazine business once called "advertorials" - to the Pocket feed.

Presumably, the Advance results could be flavored with ads or sponsored content at some point so that, say, viewing a product for purchase would suggest alternatives, or cheaper prices, in the sidebar. (When Computerworld viewed an item on Amazon, the Advance sidebar recommended stories headlined "These are the 10 best Amazon deals right now" and "Amazon is having a great smart home sale.")

Advance can be downloaded and added to Firefox here.

advance add-on Mozilla

The Advance add-on puts recommended destinations in Firefox's sidebar – enclosed by the red rectangle – based on the current page or the user's browsing history.

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