Kid-Friendly Searching From Lycos, Disney, Ask Jeeves

Kid-Friendly Searching From Lycos, Disney, Ask Jeeves

From The Search Engine Report
July 1, 1998

A few months ago, I got a message from a teacher desperate to find some kid-friendly search services. She had done a search on a seemingly innocent topic in front of her classroom, only to have sites pitching pornography appear in the top results. She was anxious to avoid a repeat performance.

There's good news for her, along with other educators and parents who want search results appropriate for children. Three new services offer children a safer way to search the web.

Two were introduced in June: Lycos SafetyNet and the Disney Internet Guide, or DIG for short. Another new comer is Ask Jeeves For Kids, which launched in March.

Lycos SafetyNet is a system that uses filtering technology to help prevent possibly objectionable web sites from appearing in its results. This is a first among the major crawler-based search engines.

Crawler-based services like Lycos, AltaVista, Excite and Infoseek create their listings by visiting web pages and indexing the text they find on them. The problem with this is that they can be easier to trick than web guides compiled by humans, such as Yahoo and LookSmart.

For example, some porn sites place misleading text on their pages to fool search engine crawlers into thinking they are relevant for popular topics. In other cases, a site may indeed be relevant for a term, but relevant to adults, not children.

To see this in action, perform a search for "toys," "chicks" or "spice girls" on any of the major search engines, and you'll probably see some adult sites among the top results. You may also see some adult-oriented banner ads.

A Cyber Dialogue study conducted for Lycos found 67 percent of those surveyed wanted the ability to block adult sites from search results when their children are using the computer. In response to this and other concerns, Lycos created SafetyNet. It was quietly launched a few weeks ago, but Lycos made a public announcement on June 29.

Activating SafetyNet is easy. You visit the SafetyNet home page and fill out a small form, which includes assigning a password for altering SafetyNet settings.

At its basic setting, SafetyNet will filter objectionable material from the top search results and prevent adult-oriented ads from loading. At a higher level, SafetyNet will also block access to Lycos chat areas, email and message boards.

SafetyNet settings are stored in a cookie on the computer, so that it remembers whether filtering has been switched on. It can be turned off at any time, as long as the proper password is provided. Click on the SafetyNet logo, which appears in the upper-right hand side of the search results screen, to reach the SafetyNet control panel.

The system works by detecting pages that contain words and word syntax common to adult or objectionable material. These pages are then pushed to the end of the results, where they are unlikely to be found.

For example, a Lycos search for "kate winslett" without SafetyNet brings up numerous sites offering nude pictures of the actress in the top results. With SafetyNet on, these nude sites disappear from the top ten.

Lycos readily admits that SafetyNet is not perfect. Some objectionable sites may still slip through, and a smart kid can certainly figure out how to delete the cookie. Also, access to its dynamically created directory remains, where some adult content could be listed.

"Originally, we wanted a foolproof system," said Lycos Product Manager Rajive Mathur. "But on the Internet, there's no way to get that without sending an army of people to scrub each result."

The key is that SafetyNet greatly lessens the odds of an unexpected, and unwanted, surprise. It gives parents and others an easy, first line of defense, which they can further supplement with a software filtering solution, if desired.

Overall, SafetyNet is an excellent enhancement for those parents and educators who use Lycos already, because they consistently like the results it returns. It offers a way to make their favorite service kid-friendly.

SafetyNet is also a good alternative for those who've tried searching at kid-friendly directories such as Yahooligans but failed to find what they wanted. That's because Lycos, being a crawler-based service, may have more comprehensive coverage for particular types of searches.

For best success, it's also important to understand when not to use SafetyNet.

When SafetyNet is on, you can't search for some words at all. Search for "sex," and you'll be told nothing could be found. Look for "sex education," and you're essentially doing a search for "education," as the term "sex" will be ignored. Likewise, birdwatchers looking for information on "blue tits" are really only searching for "blue."

So, when looking for material with possible adult connotations, or when using terms that include sexual or possibly objectionable words, push the kids out of the room and turn SafetyNet off. You'll get much better results. With it on, you'll probably get frustrated.

Likewise, turn SafetyNet off if your searches don't seem to turn up any good matches. You may be using a term that is filtered out because of connotations you don't realize exist.

In contrast to Lycos SafetyNet, Disney has taken a tried-and-tested approach of handpicking sites for inclusion in its new DIG service.

This is filtering by humans, rather than machines. The advantage is that humans usually do a better job in categorizing the web, so you can expect the Disney guide to be a good starting place for kids to explore the web. The same is true for Yahooligans, the long-established children's directory from Yahoo.

Directories are an especially good place to begin searching when your topic is broad, such as "travel" or "sports." This is because you'll find often discover categories that help you narrow your focus.

The Disney guide is produced in partnership with Inktomi, which provides results to HotBot and powers supplemental results to Yahoo and Snap. However, Inktomi is doing something different with Disney. Its technology is being used both to provide matching pages from a select set of web sites and to also help organize those sites into categories, according to Kevin Brown, Inktomi's marketing director.

This categorization is something Inktomi has not previously done with its other partners, but the company can't say more about it at the moment, Brown said.

It's also uncertain what will happen in the wake of Disney's new stake in Infoseek. It seems likely that Inktomi will continue to power DIG, especially in light of the specialty service it is providing.

The third entry is based on Ask Jeeves, a unique search service that lists questions its thinks you want answered in response to a search, then takes you to web pages that answer those questions.

For example, enter "world cup," and it will display results like "Where can I find the latest news about the 1998 World Cup" or "Where can I find a list of the all-time best players in international soccer." Clicking on the Ask Jeeves logo next to each question takes you to a relevant web site with the answers.

Ask Jeeves For Kids follows the same model, but results are oriented for children. My favorite response was when I tested a search for "sex." Ask Jeeves responds with "Where do babies come from?"

The regular Ask Jeeves service also acts as a metacrawler, presenting results from several of the major search services below its own answers. Ask Jeeves For Kids provides the same functionality, but it filters out any objectionable sites that are on SurfWatch's block list.

Lycos SafetyNet

Disney Internet Guide (DIG)

Ask Jeeves For Kids


Children's Search Engines

Still want more? This new Search Engine Watch page lists additional sites of interest to kids, parents and educators.