Customising Google's SafeSearch Options

GoogleSafeSearch Worried about some of the content your kids might run into while searching the Internet? Customise Google's SafeSearch options to keep them away from potentially undesirable material.

Google has always had a commendably open attitude to content -- if it's online (and not marked by its creator as private), then it will get indexed. That's useful for ensuring everything is covered (and undoubtedly one of the reasons why it remains the dominant online search provider), but risky when you set your kids free to start searching.

Google offers a partial solution to the issue with its SafeSearch setting, which aims to remove "pages containing explicit sexual content" from search results. By default, SafeSearch is enabled at "moderate" level, which looks for (and blocks) sexually explicit images but doesn't worry about what's written on the page. That's a useful option for many circumstances -- you shouldn't get assaulted by unexpected porn images -- but you can make it even more restrictive or (if you're offended by the notion of censorship) switch it off altogether.

From the Google home page, click on Search settings in the top right corner. The third set of options on the screen relate to Safe Search, and give you three main options. As well as moderate, there's 'strict' (which covers both text and images) and 'do not filter'. Click on the Save preferences button to save your choice. It's worth pointing out that it's only sexually explicit material that Google will omit if you choose 'moderate' or 'strict' -- other potentially offensive content (like hate speech or bomb recipes or bad 1990s rap) will still appear.

Google saves your preferences using browser cookies, so what happens doesn't depend on (for instance) whether you are signed into your own Google account. One obvious problem with this approach is that the settings are just as accessible to your kids as they are to you. A recent modification of the settings now allows you to permanently 'lock' Google using your account.

To activate this option, click on the Lock SafeSearch button, sign into your Google account (the one you use for Gmail), then click on the activation button (the process takes a few seconds). The option can then only be switched off if you know the account password. Locking uses the strict setting; there's no option to lock the 'moderate' or 'off' settings in place.

When SafeSearch has been locked, Google displays a series of coloured balls on every results page as a visual cue to indicate the option is in place. If your kids work out a way of disabling it, that will be evident on search pages. (Our US site suggested that it would be easy to work around this with some page tinkering, but if your kids know enough about browser scripting to add a fake display of the same image to results pages, the odds that you can stop them accessing unwanted content are already pretty low.)

The lock setting is browser-specific, so if you have multiple browsers installed you'll need to set it for each of them. (For instance, if you're a Firefox user you'll also need to set it up for Internet Explorer, and for Safari on a Mac. You might not ever use those browsers, but your kids might. If you're going to be paranoid, you might as well be thorough.)

It's worth pointing out that none of these tactics will prevent a determined kids from accessing pornography. However, they will stop you having to answer potentially embarrassing questions about "what is that man doing?" quite so often when searching for pictures for school assignments.

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