Searching is a basic skill that every adult—and child—needs to master. Everything you might want to know (and some things that are pretty dubious) can be found online, but you have to be able to locate what you need when you need it. Google, of course, dominates the field so completely that googling is synonymous with searching.
That dominance worries some people, including the FTC, whose staffers prepared an internal report about how Google search favors Google services over services provided by competitors. Google also depends upon a proprietary algorithm– set of rules about searching. Google shares some of what it is doing behind the scenes on its own website. (Search for “how search works” on the Google website.) Still, critics point out that there are inevitably assumptions and biases into the search process.
Some of these assumptions work to the advantage of parents. You really don’t want adult material to show up if your child searches for an innocent word, even if that word has a double meaning. On the other hand, Google also makes assumptions about what information is reliable based in part on how often other sites link to it. This can make popular sites seem more reputable than they really are.
Google is also vulnerable to Search Engine Optimization, an entire industry built around trying to get material from clients to show up on the first page of a Google search. People who use SEO are skilled with keywords, metatags, and other identifiers that Google uses to decide which of all the millions of websites will be most relevant to you after a specific search.
Finally, Google customizes search results based on what you’ve searched for in the past. That means there’s nothing “objective” about Google results. You and your neighbor can search for the same term but come up with different results if previous searches show that you have different opinions and preferences.
None of this means that families should abandon Google or the many websites where search is powered by Google. At the same time, it’s good to be aware of alternatives that may be preferable under specific circumstances.
When children are young. Elementary-age children who are just beginning to search are likely to be confused and overwhelmed by what they find on Google. Kidclicks.org produces a limited number of results, vetted by librarians. Each item is ranked by reading level, so it’s easier to pinpoint the material that will be useful to a child who is trying to master the intricacies of tornados or dinosaurs.
When you want a simple answer. If you have a child who asks a lot of questions, you need to know about Ask.com. The search engine was designed to respond to “natural language,” so you can type in a question like “Why is the sky blue?” and you’ll get quick, authoritative answers.
When you want a different spin. The Bing.com search engine, designed by Microsoft, uses its own proprietary algorithms so the results are a little different. Comparing the harvest on Bing and Google can be illuminating, especially for controversial topics. Bing also sweetens the pot with a rewards program that allows users to earn points that can be redeemed on websites like Amazon and Fandango.
When you want privacy. Google keeps track of searches, so it’s database includes information about everything from your health issues to your purchasing preferences. If you’d rather keep your search history private, you can use duckduckgo.com or ixquick.com. Both websites promise that they won’t record anything about you or your searches.
When you want just the facts. Wolframalpha.com indexes nothing but verifiable information about math, science, history and other topics. This makes it an especially good source for students who are trying to get their facts straight.
When you want to do good. Goodsearch.org is powered by Yahoo, which is now owned by Bing, so it won’t return different results. It will, however, donate a penny to the cause of your choice every time you or your kids use it.
When you want reliable health information. Looking for health information on Google can be contradictory and even scary. For the kind of research-based information you’d get from your family physician, turn to curated medical sites like Medline Plus (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus), which is managed by the National Library of Medicine, or Kidshealth.org, which has been providing family-friendly health information for over 20 years.
When you want context. Yippy.com collects information from a variety of other search engines and quickly files what it finds into folders that appear on the left hand side of the screen. Sometimes seeing sub-categories for your topic makes it easier to zero in on the information you need.
When you want the human touch. DMOZ.org is a directory of the Web, developed and maintained by an enormous network of volunteers. It won’t return millions of results, but each site has been reviewed by a person instead of a robot.
No matter what search engine you or your kids use, you’ll get better results if you follow a few simple rules: Put words that go together in quotes. Link words that are equally important with AND. Use a plus sign (+) to indicate words that are crucial to your search and a minus sign (-) to rule out words that aren’t relevant.
Most of all, teach your kids that what they find online is only as good as its source. Kids who can think critically as they search will have a huge advantage in a world awash in information.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns. @ Copyright, 2015, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.