Hey kids! Google is developing versions of search, Gmail, and YouTube just for you
Kids Google, too. That may not be an earth-shattering revelation, but Google appears to be taking it to heart.
According to a USA Today piece that's more a profile of Pavni Diwanji, the Google executive in charge of the new initiative, Google is apparently doing something to make its services more child-friendly. The news boils down to this: "Beginning next year the tech giant plans to create specific versions of its most popular products for those 12 and younger," the report states, with speculation that email, search, and YouTube could lead the charge.
What isn't clear, of course, is what Google is doing to make them child-friendly. It seems fair to assume that we'll see two areas of focus: the interface, and the results themselves. Each would pose problems for Google to solve. (Google representatives declined to comment.)
How it might (not) work
Take YouTube, for example. Here, Google might follow Netflix's example: The streaming giant filters its content for kids, and the highly visual presentation is welcoming to children of all reading levels. Instead of using text or DVD box shots, Netflix organizes content by the main characters, using large, bright pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine, for example.
The problem, of course, is that Netflix knows exactly what content it's displaying. YouTube does not. And something like a video called "Thomas is going to kill again" contains the beloved children's train in a context that's decidedly not appropriate for kids.
The problem is that Google hasn't quite realized this. About a year ago, all my five-year-old son wanted to watch on YouTube were videos of kids playing with Thomas the Tank Engine sets. YouTube's Google TV app would stream one video after the other, based on its own algorithms. But we couldn't leave him alone unsupervised, because Google would occasionally drop in a video that featured swearing or something else we didn't want him to see. With 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute, YouTube may either be forced to curate the content itself, or risk exposing kids to risky videos. If Google still has problems filtering out Hollywood movies (hello, Frozen) it's difficult to believe they'll succeed here.
Google may have an easier time presenting child-friendly search and email options. A child-friendly version of Gmail shouldn't be too difficult: Allow a parent to "whitelist" (permit) only certain email addresses, block everything else, and supervise the actual email the child receives, using the parent's own account.
Search would probably require a middle ground, however. Imagine a "where do babies come from" query, or "is Santa real?" But Google could either redirect most queries to sites like Wikipedia or provide its own responses, via the "card' format that it's begun using more frequently. And, of course, it could tap into its large store of Google Images.
At a guess, however, Google will probably either roll out a very limited beta, or else scrap the plan altogether. Parents should know not to let their young kids roam the Internet unsupervised. But if Google says it's okay, and then fails to deliver on its promise, imagine the uproar.