January 20, 2009
Back when I was a lawyer, I was given a research task as part of the matter I was working on. I searched for the answer in journal articles, in the limited commentary the firm subscribed to and in the few text books immediately available. As any self-respecting Gen Y lawyer would do, I decided to “Google it” (yes, it’s a verb). Lo and behold, using Google, I found what I needed. From a reputable government website. After receiving the requisite praise for finding a relevant, authoritative, useful answer, I was asked how I found it. I answered, received quite a ridiculous look of faux-horror mixed with condescension and was told “don’t ever admit to using Google for legal research”.
Luckily, it now seems the number of lawyers who recognise the merits of a tool which has revolutionised the way we locate information far outweighs the luddites who insist upon the use of exclusive, expensive, subscribed resources for every research task. Of course, search results of any kind need to be analysed and interpreted to ensure relevance to the task at hand and Google’s results are no exception. This series of articles will look at how Google goes about providing its results (there’s a lot going on in the background that can affect your results) and how you can in turn manipulate those results yourself to ensure fast, accurate and authoritative results.
How Google Works (a non-techie’s version)
What makes Google so powerful for legal researchers is its consistently relevant results. Google’s creators came up with the idea that a search engine which analysed the relationships between websites would produce a better ranking of results than the existing search engines at the time, which analysed how many times the search term appeared on a particular page. It’s particularly important for lawyers and researchers to understand what goes on in the milliseconds between hitting the search button and retrieving a list of results as it can often affect their relevance to the task at hand. Once you understand what is going on behind the scenes, you can decide whether to use the tools below to manipulate those results in a different manner.
There are basically 4 steps to the Google search process:
- It searches its index - Google searches the billions of web pages to find each page that contains the word or phrase or group of hos you have entered;
- It analyses those pages for relevance - Google then screens those web pages for factors such as how many times the words you searched for appear, whether they appear in the title, and (if multiple words are entered) how close to each other they appear;
- It analyses the reputation of those pages - Google then evaluates how often other pages link to a particular page and how authoritative those other websites are; and
- It ranks them - Google then ranks the results so that (hopefully) the most relevant results appear at the top of the result list.
Google interprets a link from one page to another page as a “vote” by the first page for the second. However, it is not quite that simple – Google then looks at more than just the number of “votes” – it also analyses the page that casts the “vote”. “Votes” cast by pages that are deemed to be more important (using this same process) are considered more reliable and thus help to rank other pages favourably. It’s the circle of life. Or something. What’s important to take away from this process is that there are a lot of assumptions made about what is relevant to your query. What’s important to take away from the rest of this article is that you can manipulate and manage this process yourself by using connectors, operators, modifiers and the advanced search function.
Connectors and Operators
Some of Google’s connectors and operators are fairly well known – yet some of the most useful ones aren’t. In the examples below, I’ve started with the basic and move onto some examples that you may find useful in conducting research.
There is no need to include “and” in your search terms.
federal court smith discrimination will find any mention of “federal” and “court” and “smith” and “discrimination”
Quotation marks around phrases will find references to that exact phrase.
“federal court” smith discrimination will find any mention of “federal court” and “smith” and “discrimination”
Using OR (in capitals!) between words will find references to either of the terms you enter.
discrimination smith abc OR “Alpha Beta Corporation” will find any mention of:
“smith” and “discrimination” and “ABC”; as well as
“smith” and “discrimination” and ”Alpha Beta Corporation”
Using the minus symbol (-) immediately before a word will remove results that include that term.
discrimination abc –smith will find any mention of “discrimination” and “ABC” which doesn’t include a reference to “smith”
Google sometimes excludes common words and characters such as “how”, “of” or numerals.
Google will also automatically search for variations of words. The plus symbol (+) immediately before a word or character will ensure that it (and only it, not variations etc) is included in the search.
ABC smith no. +2 will find any mention of “ABC” and “smith” and “no. 2”
ABC smith + sexual discrimination will find any mention of “ABC” and “smith” and sexual discrimination – but not sex discrimination
Using the tilde symbol (~) immediately before a term will find that word and its synonyms.
“federal court” smith ~discrimination will find any mention of “federal court” and “smith” and discrimination or prejudice or hate crime etc.
Using a hyphen (-) between words (no spaces) will find variations including the hyphenated version, the one word version and the two word version.
smith hate-crime will find any mention of “smith” and hate-crime or hate crime or hatecrime.
A few tips to remember:
- Google ignores capitals - If you enter “smith” and “abc”, it will find references to “Smith” or “ABC”.
- Google will only return results with all your search terms by default. Use the OR connector (don’t forget the capitals) if needed.
- Don’t think you’ll remember the connectors and operators above? Don’t miss the (somewhat hidden) “Advanced Search” from the main Google page – almost all of the tricks and tips above can be replicated by entering your search terms into the appropriate field.
- Whilst a Google search only takes a matter of milliseconds, a number of assumptions and processes occur in the background which will affect the results you are shown.
- You can use terms and connectors and/or the “advanced search” function to modify your results yourself.
Do you have any other tips or tricks for using Google terms and connectors for legal research?
Filed under: Internet research