Web Critic - Search Engines, Second Verse, Same as the First

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 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

LLRX recently received a question that dovetails with a peculiar experience I had while updating the Research RoundUp column on searchable intellectual property databases. A reader who is a librarian and information officer asked whether a resource exists that would operate as a portable search engine. This would be a freestanding site capable of searching the contents of Web pages that had neglected to include a search tool.

Sounds appealing, doesn't it? Maybe you haven't consciously wished for a search engine you could apply to any site, but I'll bet you could have benefited from it at some point in your online research (and probably multiple times, at that). The closest thing we've got is a searchable index, such as Yahoo! or FindLaw, that has already combed and categorized a particular resource (so that using its search function would effectively amount to the desired portable search engine.) For resources that haven't been picked up by an index, though, there's not really an option.

Is this lack much of a problem? Unfortunately, yes. Even at this point in the evolution of the Web, sites are still all too prevalent that stock up on useful, pertinent information but somehow overlook the nicety of a search engine. This type of frustration is by no means limited to small or non-commercial pages. It infests even massive, glitzy sites that give the appearance of having been designed by professionals, rather than by someone in the office who took an interest in picking up coding skills.

This situation came home to me quite unexpectedly while I was collecting state trademark resources for the Research RoundUp updating searchable intellectual property databases. I used the same methodology for each state's home page. First, I looked for a Secretary of State site, because that office, in many states, handles trademark filings. If the site contained any information about trademarks, I then looked for signs of an online database. If I found no mention of trademarks, however, I returned to the state's welcoming page to look for the appropriate office or agency. If the agency listings contained a corporation commission or board, I looked at that (again, because trademark jurisdiction often coincides with that of corporations.) If all these avenues turned up empty, I ran "trademark" through the search engine.

If you're wondering why I didn't start with a search engine, there were two reasons, both having to do with efficiency. More often than not, heading straight for the Secretary of State (or equivalent) page catapulted me toward the answer. Using a state site's search engine, on the other hand, frequently threw me into a formidable list of state contracts, position papers, legal articles, and whatnot. Just now, running "trademark" through California's search engine as an example, I got 489 search results, and none of the first 20 remotely approached what I needed.

So I saved the search engine as a last resort. Except for the time I couldn't find one. Yes, it's amazing, but true: State government home pages exist that do not offer a search engine for their resources.

The page that stumped me was Michigan. The front page is slick as can be. It's neatly organized, with a pull-down menu of state agencies, "quick links" to selected (presumably frequently requested) resources, and index headings for a variety of categories of state agencies and services, such as employment, criminal justice, and state government. These headings have a nice programming touch: Press one and all the links under it appear on the welcoming page, or you can press the Expand All Links button and view the entire index at once.

At this site, my methodology faltered at every step. My usual guess was wrong in Michigan, because the Secretary of State page had nothing about trademarks or corporations. It did have a link to an index of all state departments and agencies, but none of them had either word in the name. (I used the Find in Page function of my browser to determine this, but did not take the time then to eyeball the entire list. More on this in a few lines.) No agency listed in the headings back on the state's welcoming page looked likely to have trademarks within its purview, so I looked for a statewide search engine. In vain. I have scoured every icon on the page and looked for the welcome word "Search" in the fine print. I haven't found it, nor a reference to a site map. If I'm overlooking something, I welcome correction.

To be fair, some of the individual office pages (such as the Secretary of State) have search engines covering their resources. If you can't figure out which agency page is appropriate, however, the fact that there's a search engine on the page won't help you find it in the first place. I've since located the Michigan office that handles trademarks. It's the Bureau of Commercial Services, which is part of the Department of Consumer and Industry Services. (Because I am unfamiliar with Michigan law, that department title had not caught my eye when I'd first looked at the agency listings.) The way I found the bureau was by scrolling down the index of state departments and agencies and noticing the word "commercial" in the bureau's title.

True, familiarity with Michigan's agency structure would have cut down on the difficulty I had with this site. Search tools, however, would have been even more important. It should be a given in site design to address what sorts of people are likely to use the resources and, just as importantly, how visitors are likely to look for those resources. The fact that this column keeps stressing the importance of search tools is not a fixation on some academic point. It's a recognition of the frustration and expenditure of time that's caused by not making resources accessible in ways that are obvious, intuitive, or at least, easy to figure out. So many sites manage to do all three. For resources that haven't been picked up by an index, though, there's not an easy option. (If you'd like a plan of attack, read Tara Calishain's December 4 LLRXBuzz column, which lays out some helpful strategies.)

ã Kathy Biehl 2000