10 insights into how kids use search engines

  • 2
  • June 28, 2017
Stephen Kenwright

Stephen Kenwright

Strategy Director

I was asked how children search differently to adults so I did some a lot of digging and revisited some of the brands I’ve worked with who target this audience.

Here are 10 things I’d factor into my search strategy when I’m doing SEO for kids’ sites.

  1. Primary school children are taught to append “kids” to their queries

Protecting children from terrible things on the internet is hard work for parents.

For their part, most primary school teachers tell children to include the word “kids” at the end of each search – the idea being that only pages specifically relevant to (or suitable for) kids are returned.

Obviously this means that pages and websites that are intended for children need to be optimised specifically to include the keyword “kids” (which seems to be more utilised than “children” according to my straw poll). Title tags and copy should definitely include the keyword but there’s potentially a greater significance on meta data – any opportunity to highlight that the site is for kids is a potential advantage.

This is certainly true when optimising a website children might use in school time – but it isn’t a stretch to assume that kids will want to find the same websites again when they get home or even carry this behaviour with them.

  1. Tablets are the most accessed devices at home

More children under 11 have access to tablets than to any other device – they’re easier to use (and harder to break) than laptops and likely safer than giving a mobile phone to a child.

Tablets use – and will continue to use – the same ranking factors as desktop sites in Google’s search results.

  1. Tablet growth has slowed

Apple has the largest share of the tablet market with 24.6% in Q1 2017 but shipments declined 13% – its 13th consecutive quarter of year on year declines – with competitors including Samsung, Amazon and Lenovo also experiencing drops in demand. The same trend is reflected in this demographic with parents less eager to buy tablets for their offspring. Still – 4 out of 5 8-11 year olds have access to a tablet at home (and plenty more at school).

This means that sites that don’t work on tablet-sized screens – overwhelmingly 768×1024 resolution – are not going to rank. You can check what your pages look like on every resolution using Google’s Resizer tool.

  1. Mobile phones are the norm from age 8

More than half of 8-11 year olds have use of a mobile phone at home – which has been consistently true since 2011.

For the most part children are given their own smartphones rather than being allowed to play with their parents’ – 57% of 8-11 year olds have access to a smartphone but the majority (43%) are considered the owners of the device.

¾ of those devices are – clearly internet enabled – smartphones.

Only around 5% of children aged 5-7 own their own phone and less than half of those are smartphones.

If you thought Google’s imminent “mobile-first” index wouldn’t affect websites targeted towards children – think again.

  1. Voice search is natural for kids

50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020 according to comScore and a lot of that growth is coming from kids, who think it’s completely normal to talk to Siri, Alexa and Cortana according to such luminaries as Dr. Pete. A quick straw poll among parents in the Branded3 office showed that around half believe their kids use voice search more than text search. Unfortunately this is mostly anecdotal – even if it is a widespread belief among parents (not just in the B3 office). Right now it’s incredibly difficult to track for numerous reasons:

  • So many devices (like those listed above, as well as Amazon Echo and Google Home) are shared
  • Collecting data on children’s usage is very difficult – in the US, for example, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires parental consent to collect data on under 13s (you don’t think Facebook’s strict 13+ age limit was from the goodness of Zuck’s heart did you?)

However…

  1. Google is rolling out accounts for kids

Google introduced Family Link to Android in March of this year, which allows parents to link their mobile device to their child’s Android, effectively locking it down and allowing remote control of what the child sees and does on the internet.

The app needs a credit card to set up (proving that a parent is running the show). Family Link allows parents to:

  • Restrict what can and can’t be downloaded on the app store – and make sure the child can’t see age-restricted content
  • Restrict the amount of time their child spends on their device each day
  • Make it impossible for the child to turn off SafeSearch

It’s great peace of mind for parents – it’s also explicit consent to collect data on their children. It’s in beta in the US right now but expect new features in your Adwords account in the not-too-distant future. It also requires an Android device running Nougat (Android 7.0) or higher – no more “dumb phone” purchases for kids.

  1. Google is increasingly the trusted source of information

Google and YouTube are consolidating their status as the go-to information sources for kids. Ofcom’s survey of 12-15 year olds shows that children don’t want their social feeds to include much in the way of political commentary (which has more than a little to do with their social platforms of choice) – if they want information on serious things going on in the world, they’ll look for it – on the BBC and, increasingly, Google.

Google absolutely dominates hobbies and games when it comes to trust among children. This is a demographic that is just barely old enough for a Facebook account (and far too young for Twitter, even though they could technically sign up). Google is increasingly chosen to find entertainment – as is its YouTube platform.

When it comes to how-to and guide related content YouTube is king. This is something brands with older demographics should have at the forefront of their minds too – the entire next generation of shoppers is going to find them on YouTube so they’ll need to build their presence now.

  1. YouTube is huge

In fact, it’s fair to say that most children use YouTube. That presents its own challenges to brands – getting found on YouTube has different rules. It’s perfectly possible to optimise your videos (whether you want to call it video SEO or not) – but that’s an entire post in itself.

The type of content watched by children of different ages varies:

  • Younger children watch more full-length programming
  • Older children watch more humour-based content
  • Vloggers are a concern of older children so influencer marketing isn’t always the way to go

  1. There are search engines just for kids

Google powers (N.B. not owns) several search engines for kids – the most prominent are probably Kiddle and Junior Safe Search, with Kiddle being the most used.

Ranking in Kiddle is complicated (and probably doesn’t have the commercial upside to even try it). The first three results are handpicked by Kiddle’s editors as the best results written for children, with the next 4-7 being sites that are written for adults but with language that isn’t too complicated for kids to understand. The rest is effectively Google SafeSearch.

In Kiddle, if a child searches for a word deemed inappropriate then no results are returned:

Kiddle isn’t without its controversies: it got into trouble last year for censoring words like “menstruation”, “lesbian” and “gay” – obviously children should not be denied access to information about these terms.

Another poignant question: does anyone actually use these search engines? Well, SimilarWeb suggests the site gets more than 750,000 visits every six months, so clearly some children do, although that is globally – and there’s a Michael Gove-shaped spanner in the works (isn’t there always?):

The (previous) government made it part of the curriculum to understand search results before secondary school. So why would kids be taught to use anything other than Google?

  1. Usability is more important

There are plenty of things to factor into your search strategy when your target audience consists of young children. Here are a few more:

  • Kids aren’t great at spelling – especially younger kids. You might want to include common misspellings on a page (especially if you’re the sort of brand that might be expected to teach children the right way of spelling a term, like BBC Bitesize for example).
  • Kids are known to click the first result more often as they don’t like to scroll and don’t necessarily have the same powers to deduce whether it’s a good result as an adult does.
  • Navigation is a problem for children. Don’t expect them to be able to find related content through a top navigation – signpost it clearly and make an effort with your internal linking.

Further reading

Research here made heavy use of Ofcom’s Children and parents: media use and attitudes report which includes a huge amount on changing attitudes to TV etc. – also very interesting.

We like Google papers – here are a couple that helped to form my view of how children might interact with a search box: http://hcil.cs.umd.edu/trs/2009-04/2009-04.pdf and http://dmrussell.net/CHI2010/docs/p413.pdf.

I’m particularly interested to know, though – the fact that you’re reading this site suggests you have a good understanding of how search works. How are you teaching it to your kids?

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