bingHave you ever stood by a child struggling to get a search going on Google, and itched to tell him what obvious search keywords he was missing, or how he needed to understand the psychology of search differently? Most adults don’t rush to help the children out right away; the only way to learn the mind of a search engine, to learn the way it uses words, is through repeated trial and error. As far as making search engines child-friendly goes, most search engines usually go no farther than to protect them from unsavory content. It may be time for the major search engines to think of the child constituency differently. Children are using the Internet for all kinds of learning, and homework; and they need search engines to be tailored to their level of maturity. The search engines are only just beginning to grasp this; and their programmers are studying usability by children.

The problem is, search engines were basically always designed for the adult mind; while they could have seen it coming, the engineers just always assumed from the start that the Internet was for serious pursuits such as research, and that frame of mind has persisted. Children for instance, do not read as effortlessly as adults do. Search engines aimed at children could conceivably make better use of pictures or videos. Children could even use an automated help system with pre-recorded content when they come up against a wall. Google is today considering designing a search engine just for children; and they have a deeper reason to do this then just being nice. They consider it possible that children would just have the same problems that adults have, only amplified. By studying the way children work on Google, adult weaknesses could become easier to notice. Studying children can provide deeper insights into the exact ways in which adults go wrong.

Google has had a Related Searches feature for about two years now. Looking up a phrase like ‘the jungle’on Google could give a child the regular results, but also possible related suggestions, like videos on YouTube, information on the various national parks in the US, and some information about species extinction in the Amazon. Children don’t type really well, and tend to look closely at the keyboard as they go along. The part of the screen closest to the keyboard, at the bottom, is therefore important screen real estate for the search engines. Bing has found a special niche with children. The search engine has especially leaned towards images far more than the others, and it attracts children.

Not to be outdone, Google has had the Wonder Wheel feature turned on for a few months now. You get to it when you press on ‘Show Options’ when you get your search results. A wheel pops up, with spokes pointing you in different desired directions. Search engines don’t understand what exactly you’re asking; they find it hard enough as it is to understand what words you want. Children seem to want to use natural language when dealing with searches. And search engines want to be able to make some sense of natural language questions. The most promising development here so far has to be the Voice Search feature available on the iPhone and Android smartphone operating system. Of course those were developed with business users in mind;children would think it was pretty cool too.