Notes from the Technology Trenches - The Seven Commandments of Highly Effective Web Searching

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.


If your summer associates are anything like ours, they are becoming more sophisticated Web users, but they still have a few Internet skills to get under their belts. For instance, this year our interns are much more comfortable with even the advanced functions of their browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, then in previous years. The "select all" and "view text size largest"  commands hold no mystery for them (though they often still do for older attorneys). However, none in our group had ever used the Google toolbar, and they were universally delighted when they had seen all its functions.

In our firm, as in many others, the library staff is charged with training summer associates to cost-effectively utilize firm information resources, the Internet among them. Some of the fundamental good habits of using the Web efficiently are not so critical in law school, but are essential in a billing environment. This month we've rooted around in the technology trenches and come up with a guide to help keep summer associates on the right track with their Internet searching. These basics are written informally and with summer associates in mind, but could easily be adapted for other groups -- legal assistants, secretaries, new Internet users and the like.

The Seven Commandments of Highly Effective Web Searching

Thou Shalt Not Waste Thy Time

This commandment is also known as The Big Tip. Now that you are working in a billable environment, your time really is money. Your firm wants you to spend it wisely, so follow this simple rule of thumb: if you look for something on the Internet (or in any other resource for that matter) and don’t find it within ten minutes, stop searching. Your Web use may be free, but if you spend 45 minutes searching fruitlessly through irrelevant information, there is definitely an expense to the firm, and it's not one the powers-that-be will be happy to pay. What you need may not be available or may be squirreled away somewhere you haven’t heard about. 

Instead of searching until you reach your point of frustration, search for ten minutes, then ask for help from a librarian. Law librarians search for all manner of legal and business information and may have a better idea of where to start or whether you should use an entirely different approach. Librarians are generally also happy to show you where to find the information yourself should you need it for future reference. If your firm doesn't have a librarian, don't forget there may be other folks you can call. Summers can often still use their university libraries for reference, or you may be able to get help from a local public library. For fee-based Web research, a Westlaw or Lexis or other vendor's customer service representative may be able to help.

Believe Not All Thou May Read

This commandment might also be called The Warning. Both print and electronic materials purchased for a library usually go through a thorough review process. The staff at our law library checks to see if  materials are from a reputable publisher and makes sure the author is actually someone who knows what he’s talking about. We try to find out if publications our attorneys want to buy are current, useful and well organized or if they are garbage that someone has slapped together to make a buck. Internet resources are another matter altogether. Anyone can post information on the Internet and almost none of it goes through any kind of screening. You could be looking at a page of complex chemical formulas posted by a medical practitioner with years of experience and a laundry list of degrees, or it might have been posted by a failing graduate student. How do you know? Much of what's available on the Internet is unreliable, and it's often difficult to tell for sure. Frequently, inaccuracies aren’t through any malicious intent, either. Most often they result because some generous soul who is trying to be helpful posts something and then simply forgets to keep it current. Four years later, can you tell when it was last revised? Sometimes, however, we users trip ourselves up by assuming that information from a reliable source, especially a government  entity, must be completely current because it’s in an electronic format. In fact, most government information, the Code of Federal Regulations for instance, is only as current as its print equivalent. 

If you are ever tempted to rely on information from the Internet without evaluating it or verifying it against a reputable print resource, imagine passing it to a partner who gives it to a client who comes back later to let you know that it was incorrect. Always check to see how current a page is. Always look for contact information for the page author. If there’s no one you can contact with a complaint, it’s a very bad sign.

For more on evaluating Web resources, check out this page from Genie Tyburski.

Use Thou The Appropriate Tool

The two most popular methods now available for searching the Internet are search engines and directories.

Use a search engine when you are looking for something very specific (the name of an association, a law firm, or a person or thing with an unusual name) or for an unusual single term or exact phrase. Two great search engine examples are Google and AllTheWeb, also know as Fast. If you are looking for any concept more complex than those noted above, be sure to take advantage of the advanced search options available at whatever search engine you're using.

Use a directory when what you are looking for isn't a unique or specific item, when you want to know what kinds of materials are available on a particular topic or when you know there will be a huge amount of information on your topic and you want a pre-selected list of good quality pages. Rather than use a search engine and sort through the huge volume of mostly irrelevant results, you can let the editors of the directory site do the work for you. Two examples here are Yahoo and  FindLaw.

There are other great resources out there, though, especially those that can help you find information that may not be available through a search engine or a directory. One excellent example is LLRX's own Zimmerman's Research Guide, a great pointer to all sorts of legal research resources both in print and online. Other so called Invisible or Deep Web resources can be found by using some more general Web mega-sites like the Librarian's Index to the Internet.

Readest Thou Thy Directions

Nobody likes to hear this one, but nearly everyone could benefit by it. The only way to really understand the results of a search and to get what you are actually looking for is to know how the tools works. Each one tells you, though it may take a little effort to find. Take the time to look - it is a worthwhile and eye-opening experience.

If you want to know what kinds of materials are included in a search engine or directory, try to find its criteria for site submissions (i.e, http://yahoo.com/info/suggest/). Most search tools also list an advanced search (i.e., http://www.google.com/advanced_search or http://www.alltheweb.com/advanced) and some also have a help (i.e., http://www.alltheweb.com/help/) or general information page (i.e., http://www.google.com/about.html).  The more you know about how your favorite tool works, the better you will be able to take advantage of its capabilities.

Be Thou Flexible in Thy Searching

Learn and use more than one search tool. No tool covers every web site, and some sites inflate their size claims using dead links. (see the studies on Overlap, Unique Hits, and Dead Links from the Search Engine Showdown for more detail). If you are not finding what you want using your favorite, try another. Google is great, but even it doesn't index everything that is available. If you are prone to use the same tool all the time, you're missing something. For more options, there's a great list of legal and general search tools available at http://www.lawyerexpress.com

Also, if your search finds more or less than you expect, consider a different strategy. If you're using a search engine, maybe a directory would be a better alternative. Flexibility about in your terminology is equally important. Try variations on your terms or using the opposite term where possible.

Thou Shalt Keep Up

Which search engine is best and why changes constantly, so for the latest information comparing and evaluating search engines, check the following sites:

  • Search IQ is a funky site that ranks search tools as if they had human intelligence scores. Is your favorite a genius or a dunce? What other sites rate better or would serve as good alternatives? Like as not you'll find out about some great tools there that you've never heard of before. 

  • Search Engine Watch discusses search tools as well, but also gives you some different perspectives on the business of Web searching, especially from the side of site owners who submit their pages for inclusion. You can also go there to sign up for daily or monthly email alerts that will keep you up-to-date on all that's happening in the Web-search world.

  • Search Engine Showdown, mentioned above, not only gives you the statistics you need to compare search tools, but also provides tips, news and several very handy chart comparisons of popular search engines. My favorite: the Search Engine Features chart. It's great for those times you can't remember whether upper or lower case matters, whether any search engine has a proximity search other than by phrase, if you can nest search terms using parentheses, etc.

Thou Shalt Not Forsake the Old Ways

Even expert searchers fall into the lazy habit of using the Internet exclusively when trying to find answers to their research questions. It's so easy! It's right there on your desktop! You almost always find something. But, the Internet is just another great tool in an already extensive array. Your library often provides information in more depth and may have resources which are easier and faster to use, not to mention more current and reputable. Sometimes the Internet gets you part of the way, but ultimately a phone call is a better option. Remember that electronic searching, especially Internet searching, is not always the best way to find what you seek. Take advantage of all the tools at your disposal.

Next Month

That said, the internet is a great resource, and next month I'd like to put together a list of recommended resources for summer associates. There are a few no-brainers -- Thomas, Findlaw, Martindale and the like -- but I'd like to hear from you about some sites you'd recommend that the summers may not have heard about. Are there any sites your practitioners live and die by? What are they and why are they so important? And you summer associates out there, any great tips you've learned already this summer that you'd like to share with your peers?  Tell me all about it, and I'll share your tips in the next column. In the meanwhile, enjoy your summer!