logo

Web Critic - SurfWax: A Surfing Tool With Real Research Potential

By Kathy Biehl, Published on December 3, 2001

Attorney and author Kathy Biehl is a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of the Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research. Formerly in private practice, she is an author, researcher and consultant in the New York City area.

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

This month, Web Critic steps slightly outside its usual focus. Instead of evaluating government or research Websites, I've been trying out a tool that makes it easier to locate and organize online information. It's called SurfWax, invoking the substance that helps ocean surfers get a grip on their boards. SurfWax delivers on the metaphor, with several notable capabilities that tame Web research into a more efficient, manageable process. It moves the concept of meta-searching into a fine-tuned, customized (and therefore truly useful) realm, where search results may be quickly analyzed, organized, and opened to collaboration.

SurfWax may be an all-purpose Web tool, but it fits naturally into legal research. I've been using it to update Research RoundUp columns. The first update search I ran at SurfWax uncovered a pertinent site that FindLaw, Google, and Yahoo! had never picked up. SurfWax has now gone to the top of my bag of tricks.

The site offers four levels of use: one unregistered and three registered (free, silver, and gold). Each registered level has access to all of SurfWax's capabilities; the difference is the extent of permitted uses (which I'll point out in discussing the features below.) Silver or gold users pay $24 or $60 a year; firm pricing is available on a custom basis.

SearchSets

The first significant capability involves searching. SurfWax works off the concept of SearchSets, which are sets of search and topical resources. The idea is that before running a search, a user will define the sources that the search query will comb. Default sources appear in a pull-down menu next to the query box. For registered users, this includes a default set of eight search engines, which they may alter or expand to up to 10 or 15, depending on the registration level. (Unregistered users have access to 11 engines.)

A user may also pick and choose engines and topic-specific sources into a customized SearchSet. Although SurfWax works with nearly 2000 sources, the selection process is not at all daunting. An easy-to-use interface organizes the choices in categories and sub-categories and never displays the overwhelming totality of options at once. This currently takes the form of a series of scroll-down boxes, which may change when a new design launches at the end of the year. If, on the other hand, you want to browse all the source possibilities, hit the Search Source List link. (The number to which you have access depends, again, on the use level. It ranges from 500 to 1850.)

The process is simple. After naming the new SearchSet, highlight one of the selections under Category (such as Business and Finance, Government, Law). Subcategories will then appear in the box below. For Search Engines, the subcategories are simply Major, Meta, and Other; for Law, the subcategories include topics (bankruptcy law), jurisdictions (Canadian), and resources (Legal Publications). Pick one, and options appear in the box to the right, under Select Search Sources. This listing indicates which sources require an advanced user level. (FindLaw and Jurist, for example, are available to Gold level users, while LLRX is for silver and above.)

What you choose from there then appears in farthest right column, which has the heading Sources in this Set. To add more sources, return to the Category box, make another selection, and work down the process again, until reaching the maximum number of sources for the user level (10 for free and silver, 15 for gold). Once saved, the name of the SearchSet appears in the pull-down menu next to the query box and may be used until changed or deleted.

The legal resources here are well worth investigating. Although I don't foresee SearchSets supplanting caselaw research elsewhere, its range of resources lends itself to many avenues of legal research. The Courts and Court Cases subcategory encompasses a couple of Supreme Court databases, as well as the Legal Information Institute's federal circuit court of appeals collections (individual courts are accessible through the subcategory U.S. Federal Courts.) Gold level users have access to state laws and bills, which could be selected in combinations to look for legislation in several jurisdictions simultaneously.

The other topic sources could be useful for investigations and fact research. A trial attorney could prepare for cross-examining an expert witness by filling a SearchSet with sources likely to contain his or her articles, for example. Or an intellectual property lawyer could design a trademark scan SearchSet with sources where common law occurrences of a client's trademark would be likely to appear.

SurfWax offers several routes of assistance with SearchSets. For help selecting sources, press the Recommend Search Source link, which will load a blank message to SurfWax in your mail program. SurfWax president and CEO Thomas Holt also indicated to me that the company will design SearchSets on request. Additionally, SurfWax has developed some predefined SearchSets for a few specific vertical markets (including law), which will be available to users in about two months.

Free registered users may save three SearchSets, with up to 10 sources in a set. Silver users may save 10 (with up to 10 sources each), while Gold users may have 25 SearchSets (with 25 sources max each).

Fine Tuning with Focus

Because SurfWax works with sources that use varying search parameters, it has simplified the operators it accepts. To use keywords, put quotes around names and phrases; use + for words that must appear and - for words that must not. It's also possible to enter a natural-language question in the query box.

Before a user hits the Search icon, SurfWax offers one more feature for refinement. Pressing the Focus icon accesses a thesaurus of more than 300,000 words. If any of the words in the box appears in the thesaurus (not a given -- 300,000 is a lot less than you might think), a listing displays of similar, broader and narrower uses for the word. If one fits, click on it and it appears in the search box

Interestingly, although SurfWax does not play up the Focus Word concept, it was the genesis of the company. Long interested in improving search techniques, Holt started elaborating the concept five years ago, as an aside to his publishing company Vort Corporation. (The corporation publishes assessment and curriculum materials for professionals working with children aged from birth to six years and their families.) Added search capabilities came next, followed by SiteSnaps and InfoCubbies, of which more in a few paragraphs. About 18 months ago, the search capabilities were spun off into a software development named SurfWax.

Real-Time Analysis of Search Results

When a search is run, SurfWax generates two adjacent frames. The left one presents the search results, which will appear in your choice of alphabetically, in order of relevance, or by source. Statistics are at the bottom of the results, showing totals for how many sites were found, how many had 404 messages, how many were stale, and a breakdown of numbers by source.

If you click on a title, the page opens in a new browser window, which keeps the search results at your disposal no matter how many sites you view. Instead of automatically clicking through the results, though, take advantage of the ability SurfWax offers to preview sites with create quick, meaningful summaries, which are called SiteSnaps. Holt says that no one else offer this feature, and I have certainly not come across anything like it.

Pressing the magnifying glass icon at the left of a page title will generate a SiteSnap in the right frame. This contains the title of the page and URL, the author's summary (if available), and excerpts from the site's text showing where your keywords (here, called Focus Words) appear in context. Numeric totals near the topic disclose the number of links, images, words, and forms (all of which can give an idea of how content-heavy the page is).

Two zooming tools are available to navigate deeper. A blue arrow next to any focus word or key point will show the preceding and following paragraphs, with the context highlighted, while a magnifying glass will show the entire document, again with the context highlighted. With a few quick clicks, then, it's possible to judge whether a site has information useful enough to merit loading and viewing in full.

Another bonus of SurfWax's programming (which creates SiteSnaps automatically, in real time) is that it will distill non-HTML documents (such as Word, PDF or Excel) into text, without the necessity of launching the appropriate software or viewer.

Research Management and Sharing

Appealing as these capabilities are, what appeals most to me about SurfWax are the information storage and management features. I have valiantly attempted to ride herd on my online research over the years by using bookmarks, but periodic bouts of organizing have not kept my list from swelling with URLs in haphazard order, and usually with titles that don't quite make sense.

SurfWax's answer is an organizing and sharing tool called My InfoCubby. This allows the user to create folders and use them to store documents and data. (InfoCubby storage limits are one, five and 15 MB and 20, 100 and 200 folders, depending on the registration level.)

Folders may hold a SiteSnap saved from a search or made from a URL you enter. (If you want to save the page as it was when you viewed it, click the Cache check box in the SiteSnap frame; otherwise the page will load in its then current state.) You may also upload files from your computer to the folder and annotate the InfoCubby, both features with special value for collaboration.

Anything you place in a folder is private unless and until you specify who may access it and what they may do with it (read only, annotate, delete, rename are some of the options). You may send a folder to another user. You may mark it for sharing with specified SurfWax users or with the public (so that any SurfWax user who searches public InfoCubbies will have access to it). You may create a group, invite your choice of individuals to join, and assign an InfoCubby to that group. If you share a folder or set up a group InfoCubby, all permitted users will real-time access to the contents -- in other words, everyone will be able to see the contents in their most current state. (If you send someone a folder, on the other hand, later changes you make will not appear in it.)

Theoretically, then, lawyers working on a case in different offices could use a group InfoCubby to share pleadings, memos, and letters, and leave comments for each other. Since all of SurfWax's features are available on the Palm VII, collaboration could happen even when some group members are on the road, in a meeting or otherwise without access to a computer.

The only problem I encountered at the site appears to have been fixed. When I saved a document or URL in a folder, the right frame refreshed, but the left did not, and the folder did not show any sign of the addition. The site has been tweaked, and saving now changes the contents of the affected folder, as listed in the left frame.

I found the site consistently self-evident. If you do find yourself scratching your head, each of SurfWax's features has shorthand instructions nearby. Each also has two help pages, QuickHelp (which comes up when you press the Help link) and InDepth Help.

The only warning I have concerns privacy. Once you log on to SurfWax, you will remain logged on no matter how many times you exit and re-enter the site. If anyone else uses (or has access to) your computer, log out after each session to protect the privacy of your InfoCubbies.

ã Kathy Biehl 2001.