Mozilla experimenting with suggestions on Firefox's New Tab page

Martin Brinkmann
Nov 4, 2012
Updated • Nov 4, 2012
Firefox, Firefox add-ons

What would you say if your web browser would recommend a casino related website to you? You'd probably think the same that I did when it happened to me: this is an advertisement. Well, apparently it is not, as it is the output of Mozilla's latest experimental add-on Site Suggest. It is also proof that Mozilla needs to work on the algorithm to avoid displaying recommendations to users that some may find offensive or at least troubling.

Mozilla recently released a new experimental add-on for the Firefox web browser as part of the company's Mozilla Labs Prospector program. Site Suggest has been designed to display suggestions for websites you may be interested in on Firefox's New Tab page. So far so good.

Once you have installed the extension in the browser, a restart is not required, you will notice that suggestions may be added on the browser's New Tab Page. Only one regular site was replaced with suggestions during my tests, and it was always the site on the last place on the page.

firefox wtf

So how do those suggestions work in detail? The Firefox add-on analyzes user activity in the browser and sends the data to Mozilla using a secure channel. It is then processed and suggestions are returned to the browser where they are displayed on the New Tab page.

Mozilla assures that no data is being recorded in the process so that you do not have to worry about being profiled when you use the extension.

One thing we want to be explicitly clear is that the ODP category sent to the server is not tracked with the user. The site suggestion server does not use cookies or any way to identify the request to then use previous requests to personalize future requests. This simulates the terms of use on the user’s data where the server is only allowed to use the information in the request for that one response. This also means that if your interests change, the server is always using the freshest data to personalize the site suggestion.

The Firefox add-on rotates between the title of the website that is suggested in the browser and the reason why it has been selected. In the case of the casino site, it was selected because of my interest in games/gambling.

Mozilla employee Edward Lee notes that suggestions won't be high quality, at least not in the beginning. I unfortunately can confirm that statement, especially since the Party Casino suggestion was not the only one that I received. The second suggestion was an RSS feed and not a website, the third a Microsoft support page that explained how to detect a DoubleSpace Drive from a batch file.

I do not find the feature particularly useful, even if Mozilla would get their act together and provide better suggestions. I'd recommend to display more suggestions on a separate page that you can switch to somehow instead as it does not really make sense to mix popular pages that you have opened in the past with site suggestions.


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  1. yesenina said on November 6, 2012 at 9:19 am

    How does firefox know what kind of web sites I like? It need to collect our users’ browsing data.isn’t it?
    And maybe the sites need to pay to make itself be sent to users. It’s just an other kind of ADS I think. That’s why I don’t like using all kins of extensions except adblock pus which is the only extension I use in all my browsers (Avant browser, chrome and firefox). I use chrome and firefox, but just for its basic features,no other extensions.

  2. MD said on November 5, 2012 at 2:07 am

    Hum will the day come when there will be extensions to remove unwanted code and De-bloat Firefox? I bet such an addon would be quite popular… my 2 cents.

  3. Zeus said on November 4, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Silly me, I read the headline and thought Mozilla was OPEN TO suggestions.

    And believe me, I’d have plenty. Why can’t we easily set rows and columns, or customize thumbnails? Why is the only way to manually add a thumbnail require dexterity (dragging it from bookmarks) rather than a simple right-click with a field to paste a URL? Why does clearing your cache, something everyone should do on a regular basis, also clear your thumbnails?

    The only reason I stick with Firefox’s default New Tab page is speed. I’m trying to keep my addons down to a minimum. But one need only switch over to Opera for ten seconds and see just how much better New Tab Page could be.

    Instead, they’re “suggesting” sites. Wonderful.

  4. friv said on November 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    I added your article to my favorites so I can return to read more later. Your content is easy to read, intelligent and well written. I really enjoyed reading all the unique content you provided.

  5. Transcontinental said on November 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    1- As long as brilliant, innovative ideas remain an option for the user, not only why not but good. Doesn’t bother me if it has no impact when disabled.
    2- Suggestions on the Web, browser included : disliking is putting it mildly. I have no express my deep satisfaction when, e.g., viewing a video on Youtube with cookies off (I refuse cookies for all Google sites), I can avoid the trauma of having the site suggest what I’d be bound to like. Move of, honey.
    3- I am surprised with latest Mozilla innovations. I forget not that the wallet is Google’s and, frankly, deeper core than a few gadgets have modified certain aspects of Firefox in particular that, to deliver a frank thought, I have no idea of Mozilla’s future, I hope only in its continued fairness towards the user. Should Firefox disappear or change in a way I consider no longer adequate, that I’d move to the last free browser (at this time, hoping as well it never gets swallowed by Facebook), browser called Opera.
    A general feeling is that of a commercial hysteria, spreading.

  6. ilev said on November 4, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    “The Firefox add-on analyzes user activity in the browser and sends the data to Mozilla using a secure channel.”…

    Does Firefox honor DNT when this add-on in installed ?

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on November 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      They state that they do not profile.

      1. ilev said on November 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm

        DNT mean no tracking, analyzing… at all, not just no profiling.

  7. Peter (NL) said on November 4, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Mozilla is more and more moving towards a commercial business, this Site Suggest is an example. It proves me again that Mozilla is implementing features that users likely do not want to see in the Firefox browser.

    Hopefully this stuff is only as an add-on available, so that users do have the choice to ignore it.

  8. anony said on November 4, 2012 at 11:37 am

    How is this different from an adware?

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on November 4, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      Well it is not an ad. Mozilla is using the Open Directory from suggestions, and sites like Party Casino appear to be in that directory.

  9. bastik said on November 4, 2012 at 11:19 am

    I find it strange that they try to make suggestions.

    On one hand, sure your personal scope is limited. You may saw an advert, got a recommendation, found it via web-search or followed an external link from a site you already know. Suggestions based on ones interests can become handy to learn about sites that may also fit.

    On the other hand, why even trying? They would benefit if this is a feature that attracts people or makes them stay. They also would benefit from the data, even though they don’t seem to try profiling, because they know what’s most interesting for a large scale of their user base.

    Should this make it into Firefox, there will be complaints about Firefox getting bigger and bigger. I assume that you have to enable this feature. At least Opting-out has to be possible.

    If Chrome did this people would be very upset. “Google is just collecting data”
    “They are spying on you”

    I guess Mozilla could have the same problem. To me it appears that there are too many disadvantages, including ones that can harm the reputation of Mozilla/Firefox, to even try it.

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