Lesson: Creating Custom Search Engines

Recently my 4th and 5th grades students created their very own Google custom search engines. The students had been anticipating this lesson since the start of our website evaluation unit. Fourth grade in particular could not have been more hyped (literally!) about this hands-on project. As teachers, we talk much about the value of authentic learning and I have to say: This lesson was it!

We began the lesson by exploring the difference between a site search and a custom search. I showed some examples to illustrate the differences (our school’s homepage basic search function, the realclimate.org site and custom search options, and my science fair custom search engine). The highlight during 5th grade’s lesson was when one of the students correctly remarked that custom search engines function much like the “site: search command” I had taught them in an earlier lesson. The student not only made the connection but proved that she clearly understood the inner workings of the Web. I had planned on mentioning this fact during the course of the lesson, but it is so much more powerful when it comes from a student!

Each student was provided with a laptop and the teacher station is connected to a projector and screen. Also, our students have Google accounts and their own WordPress blogs. I’ve aligned this lesson with American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. For the complete lesson plan, click here.

After I demonstrated the steps necessary to create a custom search engine, students began the process of producing their own. They were required to name their search engines, describe them, add the websites to be included in the search, decide on a look, and then copy and paste the html code into their student blogs. For this lesson, we focused on adding the entire website only, e.g. loc.gov/*. Other options are to add individual pages or parts of sites. When creating a custom search engine, another great option is to allow collaboration. This is accomplished by using the “Admin Account” function to invite people to directly add to the list of sites. For the purposes of this lesson, we did not create a collaborative custom search engines as I wanted each student to go through the steps individually. All students completed the required steps beautifully.

Why create a custom search engine? For the last few weeks, the students had been searching, selecting, and evaluating websites related to the national election process and one of the two major presidential candidates. Last week, they wrote blog posts about the election and included hyperlinks to some of the websites they’ve evaluated. Students put a lot of work into this process. Creating a custom search engine offers students the possibility to make  accessible all those websites in a format other than hyperlinks for their global audience. As I told the students, they are now the experts on websites about the election process and the candidates, and the search engine is one way to share their expertise. Also, creating their own search engine gives students a deeper understanding of how search engines in general work. Hopefully this in turn improves their ability to search the Web more efficiently and effectively.

In his book Who Owns the Learning: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age (2012), Alan November writes:

Kids who know how to use a search engine should also know how to build one. Why? First, it gives students a deeper understanding of how a search engine works, which improves their ability to conduct more positive searches. More directly, however, building a custom search engine that references content relevant to grade level, community, course content, and research topics gives students vital practice in working with online information. It also provides a marvelous vehicle for collaborating with other students and topic experts from within your school and across the globe. This kind of collaboration results in a search engine that represents a student legacy, a tool that other students can use in the years ahead.

So, did it work? Were the students able to make the connections I hoped for? To find out, I asked 5th grade to answer the following question on an exit slip: Why is it useful to create a custom search engine? Most students answered that a custom search engine helps them get better (“quality”, “no need for evaluation”) and more specific results. One student took the idea further and mentioned that a custom search engine created by her also helps others find quality information. And another student noted that a custom search engine will increase traffic on her own blog, because it will make the blog more interesting.

Moving beyond the exit slips, however, were the answers students gave when I asked them how creating a custom search engine might benefit them in school or possibly beyond. I received  several great real-world application examples, but the following two stand out: A 4th grader, an avid video gamer, told me that he could collect websites on video gaming in a custom search engine to help other video gamers find good information. A 5th grader said he would show his parents how to create a custom search engine so they could embed it in their law firm’s website to provide their clients with better information!

But in education, as they say, the teacher often becomes the student: As it turns out, due to WordPress student account settings, students were initially unable to see their custom search engines on their blogs. To make them visible, I had to use administrative privileges to access each account and recopy the search engine html code. They are now visible for all to see.

This was a very gratifying lesson. Despite the technical issues, the students were excited and motivated about creating their own custom search engines about topics meaningful to them personally. I was also very pleased that the 5th grade students asked me to share the step-by-step instructions (I had them up on the screen) to take with them. Our students understood that a search engine is a real-world tool. For them creating a search engine is an authentic skill, not just something for school. They see it as relevant for their lives beyond school.



  • http://google.com/cse
  • Various YouTube videos (look for recent videos as setup and search features may change)
  • November, Alan. Who Owns the Learning: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age. N.p.: Solution Tree, 2012. Ebook Reader.


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