Most people learn to use search engines through trial and error. You type something into the little box. Sometimes you get what you are looking for. Sometimes you don't. Now imagine you are 9. You can't type and you don't spell very well. How likely is it that you'll find what you want?
Not likely at all, according to research by Alison Druin at the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. She discovered that children often gave up before they found what they were looking for.
5 SEARCH ENGINES FOR KIDS
Askkids.com Accepts questions instead of key words. Offers suggestions about how to expand and narrow a search.
GoGooligans.com Filters searches. Includes a point and click option for kids who find it difficult to use the keyboard.
Quintura.com Unique visual search engine that uses word clouds to let kids see how different keywords are related.
RedZeE.com Produces a limited number of child-friendly results. Rolling the cursor over a result lets kids see mini version so they can decide whether it's worth a click.
Factmonster.com An encyclopedia, almanac, dictionary and atlas rolled into one engaging search engine that is especially helpful for homework.
The challenges of searching don't keep kids from trying, and what they are looking for may surprise parents. In a review of more than 14 million searches by children under 18, Norton's FamilyOnline found kids were most likely to search for information about games, music, celebrities-and sex. (A full list of the top 100 searches is available at here).
These studies suggest there's a role for parents in teaching kids to search effectively-and responsibly. Here are some suggestions:
Direct young children toward kid-friendly search engines. Kids in Druin's study used Google, even though they have better choices.
Turn on the controls. If your child prefers adult search engines, make use of filters. All the major search engines have them. For Google or Yahoo, go to Preferences and select SafeSearch. For Bing, go to preferences and choose the adult content filter.
Teach keyboarding skills. Children who hunt and peck often don't notice the auto complete function that suggests search words based on what you type. Point out this feature and explain how it works.
Stress spelling. Some kids think spelling doesn't matter in the
age of instant messaging and spell checking. Wrong. Even the best
search engine won't find what your child can't spell.
Find out what your child wants to know.
Knowing what your child is looking for online will give you ideas for dinnertime conversation. OnlineFamily software (available free at onlinefamily.norton.com) keeps parents updated on kids' online activities, including searches. Parents can also make a list of unacceptable search terms, and the software warns children if they are about to cross the line.
Explain how search engines work. Druin found kids assumed whatever showed up at the top of the search was the "best" result, so they rarely went past the first page. Help kids understand that search engines use "spiders," robots that crawl all over the Web and classify every page based on key words, tags, links and other descriptors.
Teach a few tricks. Help kids brainstorm for key words that will pinpoint the information they want. Be as specific as possible (parrots instead of birds). Use the most important words first. Put quotes around words that should appear together, such as names. Add FAQ when looking for basic information or News when you want information about current events.
Will children learn to use search engines without adult help? Perhaps. But with a little parental guidance, they are likely to be less frustrated and may even make better choices about what they choose to find.