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Chrome 88 brought some quality of life improvements like better password protection and tab search, but more and more people are noticing an unfortunate regression on the desktop version. For ages, it's been possible to add custom search engines (under chrome://settings/searchEngines), which you can invoke with custom keywords followed by hitting the space bar or tab. You could set up "acom" or "tw" for searching Amazon or Twitter right from your address bar, for example. But now, reports are popping up left and right that the space bar shortcut isn't working anymore. People are forced to use tab, making them relearn a years-old habit. Luckily, there's a way to get back to using space, at least for now.
Has anyone else run into this annoyance and wanted to get the ability to use the spacebar in Chrome custom searches back? https://t.co/LMGly0Kzjt
— Android Police (@AndroidPolice) February 3, 2021
The new space bar-less search comes with a small interface tweak, so it's easy to tell if you're affected. Instead of the old "Press Tab to search [custom search engine]" in the address bar itself, people who are in on the change now see a bubble in the results, saying "Search [custom search engine]." There is no indicator which keyboard shortcut you can use to invoke search in the new interface, but we can confirm that tab is the only remaining option to start a custom search.
Above: Old. Below: New.
The change comes thanks to a server-side test that's hidden behind two flags: chrome://flags/#omnibox-keyword-search-button and chrome://flags/#omnibox-suggestion-button-row. If you're affected and would like to get the old behavior and look back, copy and paste either of these addresses into your URL bar, choose "Disabled," and restart your browser. You don't have to disable both flags; one suffices.
Pick one, or disable both — the result is the same.
While folks who have always used the tab shortcut to search with custom engines may scratch their heads why this is such a big deal for some people, it's all about muscle memory and convenience. The situation is quite reminiscent of Google removing backspace for back, which was met with backlash from those who relied on the shortcut. But just like the backspace removal made sense because it prevents you from losing data in forms when you just wanted to use backspace to delete what you wrote, getting rid of the space bar shortcut could also reduce user confusion: If you use a common term as a keyword, like "Twitter," and then you happen to search Google for that term followed by a space, you'd be thrown into your custom search engine instead. This won't happen when the space shortcut is removed altogether.
Let's hope that Google creates a browser extension like Go Back with Backspace for those who absolutely can't get used to tab-only custom searches, if the company removes the flag to revert to the spacebar shortcut at some point.
Tab-only search rolling out more widely
We've received a ton of reports on the tab-only custom search, suggesting that it's rolling out much more widely now. The article has been updated to reflect that.
Google has since reverted the change and enabled the space bar shortcut for everyone again. It's now experimenting with requiring a double tap of the space bar instead, but that isn't live in the stable release yet.
Alternate title: Old man yells at his computer for slightly inconveniencing him.