Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Scalia's Traffic Stop...

On Tuesday morning, Justice Scalia was in a minor fender-bender on the George Washington Parkway. Never one to do things halfheartedly, Scalia's driving error caused damage to four cars including his own. No one was injured. You can read all about it in several locations - Gawker, Above the Law here and here, Beneath Their Robes, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post.

Scalia was issued a ticket for following too closely. There is no word on whether he will be fighting the ticket on the grounds that the original framers did not include liability for such an offense in the Constitution.

Scalia is undoubtedly the most interesting of the extant USSC justices. He is witty, combative, erudite, and just plain fun to read. To his lasting credit, he made it to Tuesday morning's oral arguments and participated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Preview of Lexis Advance for Associates

The preview and some cogent analysis is here on Three Geeks and a Blog.

There's not much doubt that this constitutes the Lexis response to WestlawNext. The screenshots of Lexis Advance show folders, an enhanced results screen, a new form of search tool called the "issue trail," integrated Shepard's results, and much more. Many of these features are also on WestlawNext.

Like WestlawNext, all material now available on Lexis will not be available when the new search system debuts this fall.

When combined with Lexis for Microsoft Office this may finally bring Lexis in line with the most recent trends in legal research. Lexis has undergone two major changes in the last year in its quest to challenge Westlaw for legal research primacy.

Careful reading of the Lexis promotional material makes it clear that Lexis designed this product to fit the way associates are now conducting legal research. This confirms the new acceptance that legal search engines need to adapt to their users' abilities and styles of use. A close review of the sample pages show the kind of Web 2.0 functionality that modern users of research tools demand.

As technologies continue to change apace, it is likely that we will continue to see new versions of old products. We may be looking at a new version of Lexis or Westlaw every few years. The vendors are changing their business model to comply with demand from new markets.

Content Farms Defined

So. What is a content farm? Why does the content in a content farm impact the use of legal information?

There are several definitions of a content farm. Since Google is changing its search algorithm the best place to look might be on the Google Blog. See this post by Matt Cutts dated January 21, 2011 - Google search and search engine spam. Cutts says that content farms "...are sites with shallow or low-quality content." It is probably better to say that the definition of a content farm is evolving. See this article by Allan Graves writing for the Website-Article site dated February 11, 2011 - What Is A Content Farm - A Comprehensive Definition. Graves makes reference to Cutts' post on the Google Blog but adds additional factors for determining when a website can be considered a content farm. His list of factors is reproduced in full:
  • Multiple writers producing large amounts of content
  • Authors are paid and may not be experts on what they are writing
  • Content is written around currently popular/profitable long-tail keyword phrases and optimized heavily for those phrases
  • Content is of low quality and/or shallow (subjective)
  • Content is "spammy" (subjective)
  • Content does not link to authority websites or accurate resources
  • Content can be considered "intra-domain duplicate content" by the newly upgraded search engine document indexer
  • Content is diminutive, without supporting information or resolution
  • Website or section of website contains large and growing number of articles
  • Pages are designed to drive traffic to other monetized web pages or lead forms
  • Content is designed to drive traffic to other monetized web pages or lead forms
  • Content is surrounded by multiple advertisements, lead generation forms, contextual adverts, affiliate links or any other monetization techniques
Search engine optimization is a constant concern for all of the major players - Bing, Yahoo, Google, Chrome, Baidu or whoever. Should any site that fits this definition be sent to the bottom of the search results? Will persistent search engine users find the sites anyway? Is there a place for content farms in general when dispensing legal information?

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Google Algorithm Hides Relevant Results

Google has taken steps to suppress what many casual users of its search engines might consider to be relevant results. This February 25th article by Claire Miller in the NY Times - Seeking to Weed Out Drivel, Google Adjusts Search Engine - details some of the changes to the Google algorithm.

Google's problem appears to be what it perceives as poor quality or low-quality pages. The targeted sites are commonly referred to as "content farms." The content farms use online inquiries made to search engines and, through the use of their own algorithm, post short easy to read articles that attempt to answer those questions. Miller takes a adverse view of content farms. She claims that such sites -
"...churn out sometimes mindless articles based on what people are searching for..."
Miller must be using a different Internet than the rest of us. Some people would say that most of the articles that are accessible by casual searching on the Internet are mindless. Weeding through irrelevant results has always been the bane of any search engine user's existence.

Google's problem is that it has noticed that producers of content farm material have found a way to game the existing Google algorithm to make their sites appear at the top of the results list without paying for that privilege. Others seem to have a problem with the quality of the results. Librarians, however, know that every user has his or her answer (see Raganathan's Five Laws or Noruzi's application of the five laws to the Internet). Who, other than the user, has the right to determine whether a particular result is a good one or not?

What does all this have to do with information and the law? Well, some legal futurists see the freely accessible electronic resources that the search engines find as the means by which potential clients will get their legal information, starting now. With the pace of change in information development it should come as no surprise that these content farms are fielding legal questions. So. Why bother to hire an attorney when you can find the answer to your specific question online for free?