+ Helping Kids Search the Internet

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Benjamin Feshbach is one of 83 children, ages 7, 9 and 11, who participated in a study on children and keyword searching.

Stefanie Olsen, in the NY Times, writes that this research is sponsored by Google and developed by the University of Maryland and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

It is aimed at discerning the differences between how children and adults search; a goal is to identify the barriers children face when trying to retrieve information.

Like other children, writes Olsen, Benjamin was frustrated by his lack of search skills — or, depending on your view — the limits of search engines.

With respect to children, search engines have long focused on filtering out “explicit” material from results. 

But now, because increasing numbers of young students are using search as a starting point for homework, exploration or entertainment, more engineers are looking to children for guidance on how to improve their tools.

Typically, search engines are developed to be easy for everyone to use (Google, for example, uses the Arial typeface, considering it the easiest to read).

But advocates for children and researchers feel more can be done technologically to make it easier for young people to retrieve information.

They feel what’s needed are the means to succeed in a new digital age.  

Michael Levine, executive director of the Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, says, “We’re giving them a tool that was made for adults.  (The Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit research center in New York focused on digital education for children.)

Allison Druin, director of the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland, suggests expanding the concept of keywords.  Instead of typing a word into a search box, children could click on an image or video, which would turn up results.

Druin says parents play a big role in helping children search.  She proposes that search engines imitate that role by adding technology aids, such as prominent suggestions for related content, or an automated chat system, to help children when they get stuck.

A child’s choice of search engines differs only slightly from an adult’s preference.  Google ranks most popular among children, followed by Yahoo, Google Image Search, Microsoft’s Bing and Ask.com, according to Nielsen research.   (Adults prefer Bing to Google Image.)

Google Director of User Experience, Irene Au, says that rather than develop a specific product for children, her team used research findings to inform how it could improve  search for all ages.

The problems that kids have with search are probably the problems adults experience, magnified.  It’s helped highlight the areas we need to focus on.

For example, Google has long been aware that users find it difficult to formulate the best keywords to call up their desired results. 

Think how much more challenging it can be for children, given they do not always have the right context for thinking about a new subject.

One 12-year-old needed information about Costa Rica and used the search term “sweaty clothes,” since that was what he associated with the jungle.

Says Au, “If we can solve that for children, we can solve it for adults.”

So one way Google plans to overcome such problems is by showing related searches.  The company has tried various placements since related searches were introduced in 2007, and feels it can be helpful to introduce such queries — or other content like video, images or news — at the bottom of the page.

If a child is searching “dolphins,” the screen shows a set of related searches (sharks, bottlenose dolphins) and two YouTube videos of dolphins at play.

Druin calls the bottom of the screen “valuable territory” because children often focus on their hands when they search and see that space first when they glance up.

The director of Bing, Stefan Weitz, says that for certain types of tasks, like finding a list of American presidents, people found answers 28 percent faster with a search of images rather than of text.

He says that because Bing uses more imagery than other search engines, it attracts more children.  According to Microsoft, Bing’s audience of 2- to 17-year-olds has grown 76 percent since May.

“My daughter, who’s 5,  her typing skills aren’t great, but she can browse images of various dog breeds through visual search,” claims Weitz.

Google introduced Wonder Wheel in May, 2009.  It is a graphical search tool aimed at making browsing easier.  (To find it, click on “show options” on a page of search results; it appears halfway down the left column.)

For a search on “apple,” the wheel shows prongs pointing to “apple fruit” or “apple store locator” in the left panel.

Kids also tend to want to ask question such as “Who is the president?”  rather than type in a keyword.

Scot Kim, the first technology officer at Ask.com, says that because as many as a third  of search queries were entered as questions (up to 43 percent on Ask Kids, a variant designed for children), it has enlarged search boxes on both sites by almost 30 percent.

Last September, Google also increased the length of its search box, as well as the size of its font for related searches.  The change is meant to enhance ease of use for everyone.

Upcoming trends may also prove helpful for children.  The move toward voice activated search, such as Google’s voice search on iPhones and Android phones, as well as audio and video search will prove helpful to children with limited abilities, experts say.

Says Benjamin Feshbach,

I think there should be a program where Google asks kids questions about what they’re searching for — like a Google robot.

sole source: Stefanie Olsen’s article in the NY Times on 12/26/09.  http://www.nytimes.com

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