At one point (circa 1999) kid-friendly search engines were a big deal. A lot of them cropped up competing for the ever-growing market of kids searching online. However at some point it seemed to sink in that automated filtering could not keep out all the potentially-naughty results from an innocent search, and sometimes overenthusiastic filters would filter out things that were actually innocent. Hand-built directories of resources suitable for kids are possible (Yahoo has a very nice one called Yahooligans), as well as niche resources that focus on a single kind of resource (like the late, lamented Amazing Picture Machine.) But there seemed to be less focus on full search engines.
InfoSpace has announced Zoo.com , a search engine designed for kids 8-13. And while Zoo admits that machine filters are not perfect, it has created a filter of over 50,000 words and phrases to filter out content and asks for feedback if any naughty content is found. While I respect and appreciate that admission, this search engine has a serious issue that needs to be addressed before I could recommend it.
Zoo is a metasearch that aggregates results from Yahoo, Google, and Wikipedia (hmm, I wonder why there isn’t a child-oriented Wikipedia yet? You could call it WikiKid. Probably require too much moderation) with what I presume is search filtering turned on for the full-text engines, and another layer of filtering applied on top of that. There’s also a news search that aggregates ABC, Fox, and Yahoo.
Unfortunately there seem to be a couple of problems with the engine. First that it only filters for sexual content. If you do a search for ritalin prescription, for example, you will get the usual buy-drugs-in-Canada type listings and some search engine spam. Of course, it’s hard enough to filter for one type of objectionable content; I can accept the idea that Zoo can only filter for one kind of thing at a time. But I do not like what it’s doing with the search results.
Look at the search for ritalin prescription again. Results #1 and #2 are for Walmart.com and Reliable-Online-Drugs.com. They are numbered like regular search results. They are formatted like regular search results. The only way you can tell they aren’t regular search results is the little “Sponsored by:” part of the URL line. Furthermore, the sponsored results are not all at the top of the page. In these search results, for example, fully HALF of the results on the first page of ten results are noted as sponsored, one coming in at number 8 (In this case; the sponsored results seem to change and shift around as you reload the page.)
Think ritalin prescription is a little too “asking for it”? Okay, let’s do a search for Wii. This page has two sponsored results coming in at number 5 and number 10. Again, formatted just like the regular search results except for the “Sponsored By” that’s the same color red as the site URL.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind advertising (if I did I’d be some kind of hypocrite.) I don’t even mind advertising on a kid-oriented site as long as the advertisers are chosen EXTREMELY carefully. But I am horrified that a search engine — especially a KID’S search engine — would not delineate sponsored listings as carefully and overtly as possible, and would even mix them up into a list of regular search results. Didn’t we go through this back in 1999-2001 with general search engines? Weren’t there attorneys general and lawsuits involved?
I was very enthusiastic to get the press release about the new kid’s search engine — with the number of kids doing research online, kid-safe searching is an area I feel gets too neglected — but I was deeply disappointed to see the sponsored listings problem. I can’t recommend Zoo. I wish I could.