Search Engines

What is a Search Engine?

search_engine_2.pngA search engine is a program designed to search for specific keywords in documents or web pages and return a list of documents or pages containing that keyword to the user. Popular search engines today include Google and Bing. Search engines are powerful tools that allow web users to search millions of web pages for a specific word, phrase, or topic. Search engines generally use web crawlers or bots that traverse the web, follow links, and create copies of every page. Once a page has been crawled, it can be indexed and becomes searchable.

While search engines are a fast, easy, and effective way to find information on the internet, they aren't perfect. While the first page or two of search results are generally relevant and helpful, searches can yield irrelevant or even offensive results. Using search engines puts you at risk for stumbling upon inappropriate web pages, no matter how benign your query may seem.

Search engines today can search for specific words or phrases on a web page, images, videos, and more.

Metasearch Engines

Metasearch engines run search terms through multiple search engines and display all the results. For general web searching, a metasearch will generate too many results for the search to be useful. Metasearches are extremely useful, however, for very unusual search terms or for searches within a specialized field. Popular metasearch engines include Dogpile, Zapmeta, and Mamma.


search_engine1.jpgA clustering metasearch will attempt to group the results of the metasearch into topics or clusters, based on common terms. Cluster searches can give you a good overview of a broad topic and then let you zero in on specifically what you want to know more about. Popular cluster metasearch engines include Kartoo, Clusty, and Carrot2.

Concerns for Parents

  • Search engines will show links to any pages that use the words that are typed. If the phrase “how to avoid pornography” is entered into a search engine, the search will return links to pages that include the words “avoid”, and “pornography” (common words such as “how”, and “to” generally get ignored by the search engine). This search could easily result in links to pages that teach you how to avoid the police and show you where to purchase pornography.
  • Image searches look for pictures based on words that are associated with the image. If the caption of a pornographic image were to read “my baby” it is possible that the image could show up as a result in any image search that includes the word “baby”. Search engines generally have filtering that reduces this risk, but the technology is not perfect.

How Can I keep My Child Safe?

  • When searching for phrases containing words that could lead to distasteful sites, such as “how to avoid pornography”, enclose the phrase in quotes. When a phrase is in quotes, the search engine only returns links to pages containing the complete phrase.
  • Most search engines provide various levels of content filtering. By enabling safe search the risk of accidentally linking to objectionable content can be greatly reduced.
  • Use a searchroll. Searchrolls are self-customizable search engines. You can create a list of trusted sites and then use it to only search through the domain name of sites you trust. This is a great way to protect yourself from unwanted content. Searchrolls can easily be added to the Firefox Web Browser and can be easily shared and changed. Websites like can help users set up searchrolls.


  • Some search engines offer a highly filtered option to their standard search engine designed especially for young children such as AskKids. These sites attempt to be both safer and easier to use for children.

Where Can I Learn More?

How Internet Search Engines Work - an accessible article from

Search Engine Safety - a comparison of the safety of popular search engines in a May 2006 study

Warning on Search Engine Safety - British article on Search Engine Safety

How can I block my web page from showing up in search results?

You just made a family website and you don't want your images to show up in someone else's search. The article below will instruct you how to block or remove pages and images using a robots.txt file.