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Children's search engines; searching the internet safely


When searching the internet - particularly with children in mind, it's important to ensure that you can feel safe with what they are doing, and where they are going. There are a fair number of child friendly search engines available - at least, that's what they call themselves, so I decided to take a look at them to see what I thought of them. I wanted to get through a lot fairly quickly, so these are just my personal impressions, and I would strongly advise you to check through them yourselves to see if you think that they are appropriate (or not) for your own children.

I choose a few terms that I was keen on trying out - ‘dogging’ which is a British term (I believe) for a certain type of sexual practice that generally takes place in car parks, blue tits - for obvious reasons, and schoolgirl - again for obvious reasons. I could have chosen a lot of other terms of course, but I think that these three are enough to point of the extent to which a child can surf safely.

Several engines use a variant of Google search with the safe search function on, so I thought it was best to try that first. I used Google in ‘signed out’ mode, with strict filtering on, and looked at the first 20 search results for my three terms, just to see what the engine made of them. The first page of Google results gave me material on an activity known as ‘Bird-dogging’ which is nothing to do with the carpark activity. There was one entry linking to a BBC story about sexual activity, but it was very bland (in my opinion) and wouldn’t have attracted the interest of children at all, whatever their age. The second page also gave absolutely fine hits, that were related to industry subjects. I did however have less luck (or should that be more luck, I’m not entirely sure) when I checked the images related to the term. There were a couple of images of sexual activity, although they were not particularly visually graphic (but that’s obviously in the eye of the beholder, naturally). My second search only returned references to the word ‘Blue’ since as Google put it ‘The word ‘tits’ has been filtered from the search because Google SafeSearch is active. There was also nothing to with anything rude or avian when I checked the image search either. This is a shame, since Google surely has the power to work out when a word is used in conjunction with another for perfectly innocent reasons, but they’ve decided to go for a complete lockdown on the term. ‘Schoolgirl’ gave me news results in the main, but there were references to rape, which I’m surprised wasn’t caught. I checked, and sure enough, with safe search on ‘rape’ is an acceptable safe search term, and while there wasn’t anything explicit in Google image searches, there were a couple that I wouldn’t have expected to see.
So Google did come out reasonably well as my bench test, but it could have done better in some areas.

A bright interface, with some categories and a word cloud. It reminded me very much of Quintura for Kids, which is mentioned below. There are two search options; visual and text, with the default being visual. ‘Dogging’ returned no search results, but did ask if I had actually meant ‘digging’ which I was quite impressed with. The bird results however were both sad, getting errors such as ‘the following words were ignored (too short or common) bl’ which is just really poor. My schoolgirl search was also nonsense, giving zero results since the following words - s. h, lg, rl were all too short.
However, I went back and checked, and I’d ticked a search option (tolerant) which didn’t seem to be anything of the sort. I tried my searches again, and this time the visual results were more effective, giving me an arc of thumbnails, although there was inconsistency, since a search for ‘blue tit’ gave me results for the word ‘blue’ but ‘blue tits’ gave nothing except a suggestion for ‘blue ties’. The term ‘schoolgirl’ didn’t give any results at all. A disappointment all around really - an overly complicated interface, unhelpful error messages and general confusion.

AOL Kids
Nice bright opening screen with the invitation to ‘find something awesome’ and links to interesting video articles. Scrolling down the page there are links to videos and photographs, cool stuff, questions and profiles. Nice and interesting, with links to videos, games and pictures (although these just linked to other sites and really didn’t provide a search aspect). Dogging didn’t give me any results at all, but it did recommend that I checked my spelling and suggested against some search functionality, which I hadn’t actually used anyway. Really not helpful for children at all. ‘Blue tit’ gave me the same result, but ‘blue tits’ returned Google custom searches that related to the word blue, showing amazing inconsistency. Well done AOL! The schoolgirl search gave me an impressive collection of 7 results, most of which were pre 2012, so a complete failure there too.

Ask Kids
This is a search engine from the Ask Stable; I know it’s the version for children because there are cute animal pictures on the home page, with a background of lined paper which is rather oddly orange in colour. There’s a search box with 3 category options as well; moves, games and answers. Rather than complicate matters I’m limiting my searching to the search option. ‘Dogging’ returned no results at all. Neither did ‘blue tits’ or ‘blue tit’, although ‘blue’ obviously did. What I found irritating was that there was no explanation for this - just a message saying ‘your search did not match any web results’. Admittedly there was a ‘search tips’ box, but it didn’t address that issue. I would have thought a line saying ‘Oh, we couldn’t find anything for you, why don’t you check with an adult’ would have also helped. ‘Schoolgirl’ results were fine, and were generally about fashion and dolls. There wasn’t a link to an image search, which I thought was disappointing.

Dib Dab Doo and Dilly too...
This subtitles itself ‘a smarter safer way to search the internet’. The name comes from the 4 animal like characters which are quite cheerful, and there’s a catalogue directory approach with 16 main headings. No results for dogging, but plenty of Google adverts. Blue tit gave lots of useful and helpful sites, while the partner term defaulted to articles related to blue. Schoolgirl however gave a really good set of results, looking at schoolgirls lives in different countries and historical periods.

This engine is powered by Google’s SafeSearch and custom search engine option, though it’s clear that it’s not affiliated with or part of Google. It styles itself as an ‘educational/academic/ search engine’ for kids and teens. My dogging search brought up a dialogue box which said that the search could not be submitted since it lead to explicit content or inappropriate websites. ‘Blue tit’ worked well, with lots of good historical, social and avian information, but ‘tits’ was blocked again. Disappointingly the same thing happened with ‘schoolgirl’ too.

This engine is powered by Google Custom Search using Google’s Safesearch technology, but it also maintains its own database of inappropriate websites and keywords. The interface screen is nice and bright and looks as though it was created by children, with a nice sun, crayon search box and green ‘rex’ on the right hand side. My ‘dogging’ search simply returned ‘oops! Try again’ in red crayon, which again wasn’t terribly helpful. ‘Blue tits’ and ‘blue tit’ gave nothing, but ‘blue’ by itself gave me several results. ‘Schoolgirl’ gave me similar results to those of Google, but without the distressing rape angle, and indeed ‘rape’ as a term is also banned by KidRex. I thought that it was unfortunate that again there wasn’t a link through to any kind of image search - don’t these people know that children like looking at images?

This is a search site designed for kids by librarians, with kid-friendly results. It was bright and welcoming, with links to pictures, sound and video, as well as links to a Dewey based and category based search. Very neat! ‘Dogging’ gave me nothing, with a message simply saying ‘There were 0 results. Search Again...’. Sadly unhelpful I thought - surely this would be a perfect time to explain to children how best to search and what to do in order to improve the search? Same thing with my bird results, and with my schoolgirl result. Really KidsClick? You couldn’t find anything suitable? So I’d have to really ask if ‘kid-friendly results’ mean what I think they should mean! The image search option simply opened up a page of links to other image sites, and the video option simply returned a very unwelcoming ‘Search Error’ screen. Hopeless. I was very disappointed with this engine.

This engine also utilised Google Safesearch, with an additional level of filtering, but again it didn’t offer image results. My ‘dogging’ result gave me an immediate Google advert hit (Women looking for male doggers. Enjoy the thrill.) with the first two results from BBC news talking about the sexual activity. There was also a link and image through to an ABC News report on a ‘sport’ referred to as ‘pig-dogging’.  ‘Blue tits’ and ‘blue tit’ resulted in a large STOP sign and the message ‘Opps! You have entered a KidzSearch blocked term’. My issue here is that it almost seems to make the child feel as though they are in the wrong; the stop sign is large and clearly displayed on the screen. I don’t think that children should ever be made to feel as though they are in the wrong when clearly they’re not, and after all, this is a perfectly innocent search for a type of bird. Sorry KidzSearch - entirely unacceptable! The ‘schoolgirl’ search was probably the worst result of all though; links to a video entitled ‘Reform School Girl’ and a couple of other links that I wouldn’t have expected to have made it through a filtering system. By far and away the worst result yet.

This tool has a friendly looking monkey face icon on the screen and uses colours and font similar to Google. It boasts on the home page that it blocks 98% of inappropriate content. This worries me slightly, because it sounds great, but what does it actually mean? Can I assume that they’ve found all the adult content and blocked all but 2%? Unlikely. Does it therefore mean that up to 2% of their results are inappropriate, which I would content is about 1.5% too much? There’s a subject approach, but in common with the Ask Kids site I’m ignoring it - but once again, no image options. My ‘dogging’ search immediately brings up several entirely inappropriate adverts, and the usual BBC news results. Other than that, all the terms were again industrial in nature. Blue tits came up with results about ‘blue’ but a ‘blue tit’ search worked perfectly well. The ‘schoolgirl’ search was pretty inoffensive, other than a link to a wrestling video on YouTube and the reform video. However, once again, there were quite specific sexual links in the adverts that were returned to me.

Quintura for Kids
This site provides some animation linking to other aspects of the site (games, animals, sport and so on) with a word cloud above the search box. ‘Dogging’ gave me results based on Yahoo! Kids, and Quintura had taken my search term and was giving me material on dogs. I can get that, and it makes some sense to me, and at least a child can see what is going on at this point. There wasn’t any way of getting the engine to search verbatim though. Disappointingly after this good start my bird searches returned nothing at all. Schoolgirl only gave 2 results, both of which were fine, but just 2 results? Dreadful. Very disappointing.

This was an entirely new search engine to me. Nice and bright home screen, and the engine used the School Safe Search technology (
<> ). I particularly liked the idea that the theme of the page could be changed for class, school or home. The ‘dogging’ search again brought up entirely inappropriate Google adverts which were reasonably sexually explicit, together with a couple of BBC articles on the sexual aspects of the term. While the results themselves were child safe there’s clearly an issue over advertising. I would have expected better, to be honest. My ‘blue tits’ search only returned references to ‘blue’ which I think would be rather confusing for children; if you’re going to filter what they can see, surely there’s a requirement to explain why they’re not getting what they expect? However, ‘blue tit’ worked perfectly well. The ‘schoolgirl’ search came up with the reform school girl film again, a link to a free online game where you could choose your favourite ‘saucy schoolgirl’ to do battle, and various news stories. A rather disappointing set of results really, and again, not an engine I’d happily use.

This is an engine that describes itself as ‘safe search for kids using safesearch filter from Google’.It’ has the usual search box and links to the ‘Google Directory’ for kids and teens, which is actually a DMOZ category approach since Google gave up on their directory option a while ago. The dogging search gave me exactly what I was expecting at this point, which was news, industrial links and explicit adverts such as ‘Sexiest woman alive’, UK Doggers needed’, ‘Beautiful black girls XX’ and ‘Hottest Czech girls?’.  ‘Blue tit’ worked well, and gave me some useful avian sites and images, but ‘blue tits’ devolved to the word blue. Is it really too much to ask of a search engine that it’s capable of distinguishing? It’s clearly decided that ‘tits’ is a rude word, so it’s simply cut it from the search, given meaningless results back, when it could simply have linked back to the singular version, which is most likely what a child would be looking for anyway. There were lots of results for schoolgirl, but most of them were news related, and again I’m really not sure that results like this are appropriate for a childs search engine, since the items were about schoolgirls being abducted, shot or found - hardly encouraging!

Yahoo! Kids
In common with a lot of Yahoo! real estate, this is a lively home page with links to jokes of the day, ecards, holiday videos and so on. Nice and vibrant, with a good welcoming air to it. Disappointingly my ‘dogging’ search returned nothing except a screen showing me what I’d searched for, but with no results and not even an ‘ooops’ indicator. Neither of my bird results showed anything either, although at least this time there was a message saying ‘Sorry, currently there are no matches for your search query. Please refine your query and search again’. Sorry yourself Yahoo! - really, is this any sort of useful or helpful language to use with children? Get a grip! Again, my ‘Schoolgirl’ result got nothing at all. So from a very promising start, Yahoo! went downhill in my estimation very quickly. 

Yippy describes its app, YippyHUB as blocking ‘objectionable and malicious content’ and as “a Family-Friendly platform protecting you and your children from pornography and more unseemly elements of the web.” I start off with my ‘dogging’ search as usual. After some definitions we go straight into a sponsored result ‘UK Doggers needed’ which looks nothing like a sponsored result and it’s very similar to the organic results. The first page of results are mainly about the sexual activity, and there’s a cloud of resources which includes a category on ‘sex in public’. Hardly blocking unseemly elements! There was an image function, and the images returned were pornographic or violent in nature. This is without a doubt the worst set of results that I discovered during this exercise. Thankfully ‘blue tit’ text results were completely acceptable, but there were no results in the image section at all, showing stunning inconsistency, and there were also no image results for the plural form, but the text results were all acceptable. ‘Schoolgirl’ gave far too many inappropriate results, and as for the image results - really, just don’t go there, for while there was no nudity exactly, they were still not the sort of images designed for children to see.

All told, these engines were all poor in one way or another, and I certainly wouldn’t feel happy with recommending any of them as they currently stand. There’s clearly several problems; what constitutes a child being probably the largest. The type of engine that would be suitable for a 6 year old is of no value to a 16 year old, but most of the engines didn’t really give me any indication as to the appropriateness of the engine for particular age groups. The error screens were just poor, with no idea that the terminology used would be either inappropriate, or indeed incomprehensible to children or worse, that they would quite likely feel as though they had done something wrong and had looked for ‘bad words’ when they were innocently searching. I was also disappointed that while some engines were able to work out the difference between blue tits as a description of a physical situation or as a type of bird, too many were not, and just didn’t give any help at all. This is just going to turn a child off searching, rather than encourage them. Finally, there was also the really big problem of Google adverts. While the domain owners seemed to take care to try and limit inappropriate results, they don’t seem to have given much thought to adverts, which are as objectionable as the content they’re trying to block, and which lead directly to inappropriate sites for children. Completely unacceptable at all - either block adult sites, or do as some of the others have done, which is not have advertising at all, or screen it correctly.
As I have said, I couldn’t recommend any of these engines, and that’s a real shame. Agreed, there are others, but I’ve looked at a fair selection here, and nothing jumps out at me. All that I can suggest is that adults sit with children and work through sites and search terms, doing their best to explain that if a child sees something inappropriate it’s not their fault, and they shouldn’t feel bad about it. Trying to ban children from searching isn’t however a good idea in my opinion, since they’ll do it anyway, and they may as well learn in a caring, loving environment.

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