Kiddle – search engine for kids, or for dollars?

My social media feeds keep popping up posts from well-meaning people about Kiddle, a search engine designed for kids. So I thought it worthwhile to dig into it a bit.

Kiddle is a modified Google search engine. Anyone can make a Google custom search engine – and many people do because it’s a nifty way to make money from ads if you can market your customised search engine effectively. The Google logo on the page has lead to many people mistakenly thinking that Google is behind the project – it isn’t in any way. And that’s the first red-flag – this isn’t a project backed by a well-known company, it’s a project backed by some anonymous people.

So Kiddle uses a custom Google search engine which is basically Google with safe search turned on and a couple of twists. The main twists are that they have added a cut-down version of Wikipedia with child-friendly articles and they have blocked certain words from getting any results at all. Search for ‘nude’ for example and you get nothing.

The blocking of words proved controversial for Kiddle over the years (it has been around since 2016). Kiddle originally blocked a bunch of words that, for example, would be used by young people uncertain about their gender – that lead to many people characterising Kiddle as less about safety and more about ignorance. It now appears they have unblocked many of these and have them lead to their encyclopedia entry.

It’s worth noting that one of the terms that was blocked was ‘suicide’. And although that term, and related self-harm terms are no longer blocked, they are dealt with generically on Kiddle while the same terms on Google itself will lead you to local organisations who can assist – Lifeline in Australia for example. That does demonstrate the difficulty in creating any sort of closed environment – it can be very hard to know where to draw the lines between being safe from exposure to inappropriate material and in danger from not having enough information.

When you do an actual search on Kiddle the results are definitely broadly kid-friendly – they are safe, presented with big pictures, and generally in simple language. The difficulty in saying that is that ‘kids’ are not a homogeneous group – results suitable for an eight-year-old kid are different to those that might help a 13-year-old. But if that was all there was to Kiddle I’d be recommending it to anyone who doesn’t know how to turn on safe search on Google itself (it’s under Settings, by the way).

But it isn’t all; there’s a real problem.

Do a search on Kiddle are the top two-thirds of the screen comes up with ads. Ads that are much more obtrusive and in-your-face than using Google itself. That is, after all, how the whole custom search thing works.

That’s annoying for an adult; but given that it is a proven fact that kids have difficulty differentiating between content and advertising it’s pretty much unforgivable in this context. And it’s all those adds that presumably generate the revenue stream that makes Kiddle worthwhile to its backers. The cynic in me has to say the whole thing feels like a clever way to market a custom search form and make money off ads: Every time a well-meaning parent posts on Facebook or Twitter about Kiddle the cash registers ring.

And remember that to make money from the ads all that’s needed is a click. Neither Google nor, presumably, the people behind Kiddle care if that click is coming from a kid who just hits the button under what appears to be the first search result. That all feels pretty ugly to me and much as I might appreciate a safe search environment for a kid, I wouldn’t like my kid being used in this way.

Typical Kiddle search results

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