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Everything You Didn’t Know About (Safely!) Searching the Internet

Search Engine Safety

Michael Stone

Eugene Gan - published on 09/27/13

When it comes to finding on the Internet what you want (and avoiding what you shouldn't want), there's a wide range of options available. Are you getting the most out of Google?

I recognized that man is unable to find out all God’s work that is done under the sun, even
though neither by day nor by night do his eyes find rest in sleep. However much man toils in

searching, he does not find it out; and even if the wise man says that he knows, he is unable to find it out. ~ Ecclesiastes 8:17

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. ~ Matthew 13:45

Searching the Internet is such a common place activity now that we hardly give it much thought anymore. We even use the company name “Google” as a verb, as in “Just google it”. Sort of the modern equivalent of when we used the company name “Xerox” to mean “photocopy”. But is there more to googling than just typing our search terms into the search bar? I’m guessing most of you know how to refine your searches with various special characters. For example:

  • Use double quotes “” around your phrase if you want the exact phrase to be searched.
  • Use a minus – sign before a search term to exclude that search term.
  • Use a tilde ~ sign before a search term to find that word as well as similar words to your search term. Essentially, this gives you search results that include synonyms to your search term.
  • Use OR in between your search terms to search for one or the other search term. Without typing the OR, your search results tend to show webpages that match both search terms.  
  • Use an asterisk * as a wildcard or placeholder for any unknown word. For example, you might search “an * a day keeps the doctor away” if you forgot what the fruit was in that popular phrase.
  • Use two periods .. in between numbers to search for a range of numbers. For example, you might be looking for a digital camera within a certain price range, and so you can type: digital camera $100..$300
  • Use site: before a website URL to search within that website. For example, to search for references to the word ‘altar’ within Aleteia’s website, you would type "altar site:aleteia.org"

If you’re not familiar with any of these, just google it!

But indeed, there is more.

Did you know that you can type www.google.com/advanced_search (or make a bookmark to that link) and you’ll be provided a host of search controls to really refine your searches?

Did you also know that there’s a Google education site that teaches search skills (to get to this, type www.google.com/insidesearch/searcheducation/)?

Children and Search Engine Safety

This is all fine and great, but what if you have children who are of age to start using search engines? Search results can show adult websites (though there’s nothing ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ about them. We might as well call them what they really are: pornographic websites, and they are not appropriate for adults either). While you can subscribe to services that filter your web content, Google’s own SafeSearch is a quick and easy way to avoid content you may not want to stumble upon. Google says that SafeSearch “is designed to screen sites that contain sexually explicit content and remove them from your search results.”

To enable SafeSearch:

  1. Go to www.google.com/preferences
  2. In the "SafeSearch filters" section, check the box next to “Filter explicit results”
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Save”.

You can also easily enable safe search for YouTube:

  1. Go to www.youtube.com
  2. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Safety:”
  3. Click the “On” radial button
  4. Then click “Save”.

SafeSearch should remain set as long as cookies are enabled, but if you delete your browser’s cookies, be aware that you may need to perform the above steps again to enable safe searching.

The Church’s documents on social communications encourages us to exercise and train our hearts so that we overcome inordinate desires to seek what is wrong. We’re not to be merely or
unthinkingly employing external filters and censorship (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and Internet”, article 1), so these external locks can be a good first step for the journey on the narrow way. (Yes, does this surprise you? Mother Church actually says that censorship is not the end goal: “a merely censorious attitude on the part of the Church…is neither sufficient nor appropriate.”)

You can choose to lock Google’s SafeSearch if you have a Google account:

  1. Visit www.google.com/preferences
  2. Click “Lock SafeSearch” (next to “Filter explicit results”). At this point, you may be prompted to sign in to your Google account.
  3. Once signed in, click “Lock SafeSearch”, and you’re done!

Other Ways to Do Safe Searching

Other search engines may be powered by Google’s SafeSearch, but add their own flavor to the process.

In its own ‘About Us’ webpage,Catholicsurf.com states that it provides “an easy to use resource to anyone wanting to learn more about Catholicism and provide a safer way for good Catholics to search and surf the net…. it produces balanced results from all perspectives, from sites all over the internet with more weighting given to Catholic websites and sites containing content relating to Catholics and Catholicism.”

Catholicsearch.net is another alternative that uses Google’s SafeSearch engine, but it provides you with an easy way to select one of three modes of searching from the main search page itself:

  1. Standard Google SafeSearch
  2. Emphasis on Catholic websites
  3. Only Search Catholic websites

Safesearchkids.com also uses Google’s SafeSearch engine, but uses a strict filtering setting by default, and unlike catholicsurf.com and catholicsearch.net, safesearchkids does not show little picture icons next to your search results.

Search Tracking Safety

Google has been criticized for playing Big Brother and placing long-term cookies on your computer to save your preferences and collect information on your surfing habits (including your search history, username, and password). When you use Google as a search engine to perform your Internet searches, Google can use these same cookies to track your searches and deliver ‘personalized’ targeted advertising: what you searched for, what you like, where you shop, pages you visit most often, videos you watch on YouTube etc. In this way, Google claims that “We use cookies to make advertising more engaging to users and more valuable to publishers and advertisers. Some common applications of cookies are to select advertising based on what’s relevant to a user; to improve reporting on campaign performance; and to avoid showing ads the user has already seen.”

Did you also know that when you use a search engine, you may see search results that are different from someone else who has used the exact same search phrases as you? This is because search engines typically tailor search results to who you are based on what you’ve searched for and what you’ve clicked on. As you click on links that you like or agree with, future search results reflect more of what you like and agree with, and less of what you don’t like and disagree with. Basically, this means that without any additional action on your part, your searches are automatically filtered by the search engines. This begs the question: What are you missing? Talk about an unbalanced worldview. You’re living in what is now called the “Filter Bubble”. Our views of the world start to narrow about us, and whether we realize it or not, we increasingly succumb to the ME-ME-ME attitude.

If all this bothers you or plainly creeps you out, there are free alternatives you might want to try. One up-and-coming alternative is
DuckDuckGo.com.

DuckDuckGo has some built-in (no external scripts needed) nifty user interface enhancements. For example, there’s no ‘next’ button to click. As you scroll down your list of search results, additional results automatically load. It also provides what they call an “instant answers” box – basically a box which appears at the top of the search result list that displays a topic summary and relevant links.

Official sites for your search terms, if they exist, are displayed immediately below the instant answers box and at the very top of the search results list. Clicking on icons next to search results displays more results from that specific site.

But the real biggie is that DuckDuckGo protects your privacy by not employing tracking cookies, so there’s no tracing of your searches back to you. And by not collecting or sharing your personal information, the filter bubble is avoided, meaning that all users should see the same results for the same search terms.

That, and DuckDuckGo has SafeSearch (omits objectionable, pornographic material) turned On by default. If for whatever reason a particular search requires turning this off, you can conveniently disable SafeSearch just for that particular search (i.e., on a per query basis) by appending “!safeoff” (without the double quotes) to your search.

Like crossing the street, despite the implicit dangers, we’ve all got to learn how to do it safely, not to mention teach our little ones to do so with care. When you stop to think about it, searching the Internet isn’t such a simple, concern-free, daily activity, but hopefully, with prayer, thoughtfulness, and some of the tips above, you and your family will be able to do so proficiently and safely. 

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