Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Reflections on Conversation with Anurag Acharya, Google Scholar

Reaction to Google Scholar Legal Opinions and Journals (SLOJ) has been largely defined by our experience with extant legal databases. All online legal research tools that we're familiar with at present are databases filled with documents that we search using boolean operators or simple, character-by-character, word-for-word text searching. The main differences between, say, Westlaw and the ordinary "find" command when you search your documents or use Spotlight on your computer, is that Westlaw indexes the documents in ways that we take for granted. Things like proximity connecters, segment searches, etc., are all part of the indexing process and gives us extraordinary power to use the computer to conduct detailed and very precise searches of its database. Other vendors that we're familiar with use similar processes.

Google, on the other hand, as a search engine, is unlike any other in our experience. There is really no full text searching going on. Google's search philosophy is very adequately discussed in James Surowiecki's, "The Wisdom of Crowds." Google does not really search cases or articles for the terms used in your query. Rather, it uses the terms in your query in a variety of ways. It will recognize which are names of parties, which are legal principles, or author's names, article titles, etc. It then uses it's vast network of data which links cases and articles together and returns results based upon frequency of linking and cross-referencing. This is a gross over-simplification, but it suffices to illustrate that the search results are not the objective kind of results that Westlaw, Lexis and others produce. Searching in Google is quite subjective by comparison. Not, of course, in the sense that it is anticipating or evaluating the meaning of the query and returning results accordingly, but in the sense that based on your query, the results returned are based on a document's popularity. The more times a document is cited, the more important the search engine assumes it is.

This approach to searching for law is completely different from other search engines and poses very distinct problems for legal researchers who are tempted to use it as a substitute for "Wexisberg". (Thanks to Greg Lambert for this new portmanteau of Westlaw, Lexis and Bloomberg.) When understood, Google will produce stunning results. The fact is, it does exactly what it says it does. Many criticisms of it as a legal research tool are based upon comparisons of it to Wexisberg, which is something like comparing apples and oranges.

This is not to say that Google SLOJ doesn't need to improve. There are many things that Google can do to make it more palpable to lawyers and legal academics. Clearly defining the content of the databases being searched for one thing. At this point, it all seems very mysterious.

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