Web Critic - A New Search Engine at FindLaw; New Guidelines for Federal Web Sites

Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.

Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.

Web Critic Archives

Web Critic 9: OMB Watch Surveys State Legislative Sites; A Closer Look at FindLaw

Web Critic 8: User Friendly Innovations at Three State Web Site

Web Critic 7: And Web Accessibility for All?

Web Critic 6: Award Winning Government Sites

Web Critic 5: Search Engines: Second Verse, Same as the First

Web Critic 4: The Effective Use of Pull-Down Menus as Navigational Tools on a State Government Web Site

Web Critic 3: State Tax License Services on the Web

Web Critic 2: Fair Warning of Web Site Content

Web Critic 1: Evaluating Legal Research Web Sites

No complaints this month! The start of summer finds me in an uncharacteristically optimistic mood about life online. Two promising developments (besides the weather) are to thank: the launching of a revamped search engine at FindLaw, and the implementation of new accessibility guidelines for federal government Websites.

FindLaw Retools LawCrawler

One month after bemoaning the deterioration of FindLaw's search engine, I am happy to report that my complaints have vanished. Don't mistake my ranting with the reason for the change; the law of cause and effect had nothing to do with this occurrence. Unbeknownst to me, as I wrote of search after fruitless search at the site, FindLaw was well into developing a solution, which debuted early in June.

The fix was one that has worked for other sites. The new and improved version of LawCrawler is powered by none other than Google. According to statements by both Tim Stanley and Stacy Stern of FindLaw, LawCrawler now searches across a legal cut of Google's database of more than a billion pages.

To test drive the new version of LawCrawler I reran each of the sorry searches I so tortuously detailed in the last Web Critic. Instead of drowning you with data yet again, I'll cut to the quick: Each attempt yielded an overwhelming list of results. What's more, when I was looking for a specific, known site (rather than running a dragnet search), the desired URL was consistently near, if not at, the top of the list.

For consistency's sake, I also ran the searches again at Yahoo!/Government/Law. I had previously turned to searching this category at Yahoo! as a replacement for FindLaw, when it was coming up short. Yahoo! also uses Google to generate Web page matches (as opposed to identifying sites that are listed in the Yahoo! index.) Interestingly, although I entered identical search queries at both FindLaw and Yahoo!, the sites did not turn up the same number of responses. In most instances they were in roughly the same ballpark. A couple of times, though, they differed by about a hundred. (Yahoo! produced 322 results for the query ["slip opinion" AND Texas] whereas FindLaw reported 459.) The queries were entered within minutes of each other, so the variances can hardly be explained on grounds of new sites slipping into Google's database in the time it took me to surf between FindLaw and Yahoo! I'm at a loss to explain the differences. Until a technically knowledgeable source informs me otherwise, I'm chalking them up to moon wobbles. Or gremlins.

Teaming up with Google isn't the only upgrade FindLaw has made to LawCrawler. The new version includes a handful of filters that permit searching a few specific categories of resources: Federal sites, state or government sites; most U.S. law schools; and countries. These appear on the LawCrawler page, but not in the pull-down menu next to the search box on each page. (If there's another short cut to the filters, I'd appreciate someone pointing me to it.)

Each filter offers a pull-down menu to narrow a search further to a specific body. Do not ignore the pull-down menu box. Each one is set to a default other than the most inclusive option; for example, the state governments box defaults to California rather than US State Government Site). If you want to run a query through everything in a filter category, be sure that the box is displaying the most inclusive term. For the federal and state filters, that will be at the top of the list. For the other two filters, scroll to the bottom of the box.

All in all, the new and improved LawCrawler is cause for celebration. Yell "It's about time!" from the stands if you like. As for me, I'll just sit quietly (and gratefully) at my computer, running searches from the same one-stop springboard that I've been hanging around since the dawn of my time online.

The Feds Implement Accessibility Guidelines

Change is also afoot in the design of federal government Websites, which are now subject to Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 36 C.F.R. Part 1194. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board issued the standards, which pertain to electronic and information technology covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

The rules address software, telecommunications, multi-media, computers, and, of course, Web-based information. The Web-based standards contain 16 points that require providing equivalent alternatives, either in text or using assistive technologies, to every visual or sound element on a page.

The majority of the standards are consistent with the Priority One checkpoints of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which I discussed in And Web Accessibility for All? Assessing the Government Technology Magazine Award Winners in Terms of Accessibility for People with Disabilities (March 1, 2001). For federal Websites, though, complying with the WCAG is not sufficient. Five of the new standards impose more rigorous requirements than the W3 guidelines. For forms that must be completed online, for example all information, directions and cues must be accessible by assistive technologies, and a page must alert users if a timed response is required and also give the opportunity to signal a need for more time.

What effect will these standards have, in practice? Federal government sites haven't exactly been a hotbed of multi-media, but I'm still predicting a lot less Flash and a lot more substance. (For the viewpoints of some federal Webmasters, see "ARTS ONLINE; Making Federal Web Sites Friendly to Disabled Users" by Matthew Mirapaul, New York Times, June 11, 2001, which is available from the archive for a fee.)

The Web-based standards appear in Section 1194.22. They're in uncommonly concise and clear language and well worth a read -- especially if you'd like a blueprint for cleaning up your own site.

ã Kathy Biehl 2001.