Understanding Online Searches

By learning about search algorithms, students will start to understand that the information they get from searching online does not simply materialize out of thin air! This understanding will enable students to critically evaluate search results.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Understand the basics of how an online search works
  • Evaluate the results of digital searches using different search engines
  • Identify the features of high quality information from online searches
Essential Questions
  • How do online searches work?
  • What does it mean to access high-quality information?


algorithm [al guh rith uhm] (noun) a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem, especially by a computer

search engine [suhrch en juhn] (noun) a program that searches for keywords that a person is specifically looking for, particularly on the internet

accurate [ak yoo reht] (adjective) containing true, verified and up-to-date information


Series Overview

As technology advances and the social landscape shifts, it is crucial for students to become digitally literate citizens. In this series, elementary students will learn the ins and outs of media literacy, from choosing reliable sources and understanding online searches to navigating online security and participating in digital communities.


Lesson Overview

This lesson focuses on helping students determine how online searches work. By learning about search algorithms, students will start to understand that the information they get from searching online does not simply materialize out of thin air! This understanding will enable students to critically evaluate search results.

Students will learn what happens when they conduct an online search using a common search engine. They will look at the ways the search algorithm can influence their results. Then, they will work to make a graphic list of demands they have for the information they obtain from the internet.


Suggested Procedure

What is a search algorithm?

1. Begin by asking your students if they have ever searched for information online or seen adults search for information. Ask what they know, think or wonder about how online searches work. If students have never conducted or seen an online search, ask them to share other times and ways they have searched for information.

2. Chart students’ ideas about what they already know about how people find information online. What is Google, for instance? What is Siri? Explain that these are not magical forces that come up with information out of nowhere or at random. Programmers designed them to find information using specific calculations. Explain that just as your students sometimes use algorithms, or step-by-step procedures, to solve math problems, online search engines also use algorithms to locate information for users on the internet.

3. Project or pass out the “Where Do Search Results Come From?” handout. Talk through the handout with your students, emphasizing that online search engines are not magical but in fact follow procedures designed by humans. Give students a chance to ask questions or talk about any surprises or new information. For instance, students might be surprised by the idea that search algorithms may take into account where the person who is searching lives or their search history. The notion that search algorithm creators have their own motives, such as promoting paying sites to the top of results, might also be new to students. For students who are new to the whole idea of online searches, help them think about what is similar to or different from other kinds of information searches they have done:

  • How is an online search like or unlike asking an expert?
  • How is an online search like or unlike checking in a book?
  • What are some of the reasons people choose one method of searching for information over another?


So Many Results

1. Pair students up, and give each pair a printout of screen shots from two to three different search results of the same topic. Alternatively, you can project these screen shots or have students conduct their own searches and then look at the results. Emphasize that, for now, students do not need to know the details of any of the results; they are simply thinking about what comes up when they put in particular search terms. Note: Particular screen shots are not provided because it will be more effective if you show students what happens when you conduct the search locally. Choose a topic your students are interested in, such as soccer, wild animals or video games. Use multiple search engines to conduct the same search, and give students your results.

2. Ask students to discuss the following questions with their partners:

  • What is the same about all of the results?
  • What is different about them?
  • Which result makes you the most curious and why?
  • What do you notice about these results? What stands out to you?
  • How do these search results look different from the kinds of answers you might get in a book or by asking an adult?

For more abstract thinkers, you can also add these questions:

  • What might motivate the creators of search algorithms?
  • What do they hope you do after conducting a search?

3. Bring students back together, and ask partners to share out any big ideas that came up in their conversations.


Demanding Quality Information

1. Explain to your students that they have the right to seek out and even demand quality information when searching on the internet. What would they ideally want a search engine to take into account when supplying information in response to their searches?

2. Break students up into small groups, and ask each group to create a sign or poster listing their demands for search algorithms. For example, students might demand the truth, they might demand up-to-date information, or they might demand the same information an adult would be given. Answers should come from students, but if they need prompting, ask them to consider what they hope to get from any source of information, such as a book or an expert they are talking to.

3. Next, help them think about how they can translate these hopes into expectations for the internet in general, such as online communities they belong to or social media sites. Students can illustrate their posters, and you can hang them in your school or classroom.


Do Something

Ask your students to go home and talk with their family members about what they learned about digital searches. Encourage them to come up with a list of critical questions everyone in their family will ask themselves when searching for information online. They can print or write out these lists and post them near their family computers.



Where Do Search Results Come From?

When you put words or questions into a search engine, the algorithm takes into account some of the following questions before it shows you your results.

What words did you use?

  • What words did you type? How did you mean to spell them?
  • Of all the information on the internet, what matches the words you used?

Is this what you want?

If a website has the words you used, will this website answer your question or be the information you are looking for? For example, if you search for “pizza,” do you want a website telling you where to buy pizza or a website explaining what pizza is?

If a website has the words you used, is this website paying to have itself listed close to the top of your search results?

What does the internet know about you?

Where do you live, and what does that tell us about what you are searching for? For example, if you search for “zoo,” does the algorithm show you a website for your local zoo or a website explaining what a zoo is?

What have you searched for before, and what does that tell us about what you are searching for now?  


Alignment to Common Core State Standards


Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.


Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.


Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.


Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

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