Google Scholar & Legal Research - Focus Remains on "Scholar"

Last Friday I had a chance to talk with Google Scholar Chief Engineer Anurag Acharya. The 90 minute talk (recast available via The Law Librarian TalkBlogRadio) answered a lot of technical questions about Google Scholar Legal and Online Journals (SLOJ), but it was some of the unanswered questions that I found interesting. First of all, let me address the questions that I'm sure a lot of you have been asking:
"Can Google Scholar Legal and Online Journal replace my Westlaw or Lexis content?"
My answer: "Absolutely Not!"
In fact, the people at Google would tell you the same thing. It is just not what they are planning to do with this product. Now that I got that out of the way, let me explain what I learned in the interview and you'll see why I'm not confident in SLOJ competing with Westlaw, Lexis, or even the upcoming Bloomberg Law (which I'll call "Wexisberg").
Not Enough People on Project
First of all, Google Scholar has three people. Not just on the legal portion of Google Scholar, there are three people total on the entire project. Maybe you're saying to yourself that since Google is a search engine, maybe three people are sufficient on a project like this. In my opinion, three of the smartest legal database people in the world, combined with the power of Google might make a great resource tool for legal research, but not a competitor to the existing Wexisberg products.
No Legal Research Experience
This brings me to the second reason that this project won't compete with Wexisberg. None of the three people that Google Scholar has on this project have a legal research background, and at most are only familiar with some of the basic principles of how legal research is conducted. They are super-smart, highly educated folks with out of this world mad skills on creating great ways of searching and retrieving vasts amounts of information using the simplest of searches. But, they are not legal researchers, nor do they claim to be legal researchers. This project is focused on the way "Scholarly" research is conducted, not how "Legal" research is conducted. Again, Google SLOJ is not claiming they are... but, I know a lot of people who wish they would!!
Focus is on Improving Search Not on expanding Content
Throughout almost the entire interview, Anurag Acharya talks about how they are focused on making the search results better. The content found in Google SLOJ was either purchased or leased from third party vendors. Google specifically said that they would not disclose who they got the cases from, but Anurag did say that this vendor would also update the cases as new decisions were released. However, there are no immediate plans to expand into areas such as statutes or regulations because of the dynamic nature of such publications. Google SLOJ is sticking to the cases, and the legal scholarly work (law journals, etc.) only because these are viewed as static documents that do not change once they are published.
No API Will Be Offered
The fact that Google does not have an API to interface with Google SLOJ, nor does it plan to develop an API, is not surprising. My guess (and that's all it is... a guess), is that the agreements between Google and the third-party providers prohibit Google from using an API to distribute any of the documents it indexes. Now, if some ingenious Geek somewhere were to develop a pseudo-API that would allow you to tap into Google SLOJ through another product.... well, that's another story for another time....
Google SLOJ - Enjoy It for what It Is
We've all become used to using Google to do 'quick and dirty' research. Google SLOJ is another piece of the total Google search universe. It is there to get you something quick... something free... and sometimes will be exactly what you need to answer a research question. However, it is not a Westlaw or Lexis replacement. If you try to view it as such, you're going to be sorely disappointed. That doesn't mean that it can't get better. In fact, one of the best things I came away from the interview with was an email contact that librarians can used to submit suggestions on how to make Google Scholar better. If you see something that needs work, or have a comment or suggestion on how something could be better, shoot an email to scholar-library@google.com. Maybe, if your suggestions are good enough, you could be that fourth person on the Google Scholar team!!

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Jason said...

I'm glad to see you're on the portmanteau bandwagon. And despite your attempts to keep folks focused on the very limited nature of SLOJ, I'm pretty sure that over the next year we'll be hearing anecdotes at the conferences (and maybe suggestions in CLE papers) about how lawyers are giving up high priced CALRs in favor of Google. I can smell new ethics opinions already.

Richard Leiter said...

Interesting thoughts - and, once again, thanks for being on the show. You and Roger contributed much to the discussion.

One thing, though, that struck me is that comparing it to Wexisberg is like comparing apples to oranges. Google SLOJ is more analogous to "natural language" searching than it is to straight full text searching. And this is partly how/why the results are so good, and, at the same time so weak. When we compare them to straight full-text Wexisberg searching, it's disorienting because they are doing much more analysis than we're used to.

I've been studying Google's search algorithms and methods and am beginning to appreciate that it's almost wholly different from what we're used to - or even need, as lawyers. However, I suspect that once it is fully developed and understood, it may become a very, very useful tool indeed.

And, since they're not really in the same ballpark as Wexisberg, I don't think that the "big three," have much to worry about.

Greg Lambert said...


First of all, thank YOU for pulling this interview together.

As for the comparison, this was really in response to the large number of attorneys, librarians, etc. that immediately started calling Google Scholar a "Wexisberg" killer. I've received a large number of questions from people concerning Google Scholar's entry into legal research and whether or not they could consider cancelling either Westlaw or Lexis and rely on Google Scholar. So, although it really is an apple to oranges comparison, there are folks out there that didn't initially see it as such. I'm hoping that laying out some of the details behind Google's SLOJ project will make people realize what it truly is, and appreciate it for such.

Richard Leiter said...

Oh, you're absolutely right. Look at what happened to Wikipedia. We all scoffed at it, initially, but look at us now.... Google SLOJ will definitely have the same appeal. Whether we like it or not. Or whether it's the righto thing to use, or not....

Charlie Campbell said...


Thanks for making this interview happen and posting the contents here, some great information. I agree, Google is not yet a direct threat to the old timers, but we can hope that it will go the way of Wikipedia as Richard suggested. As a "natural language search" it certainly is killer. Too bad its boolean "terms and connectors" is sorely lacking. Hopefully the small team on the project will take notice of the growing interest in a more comprehensive (more connectors and limiters) boolean type search for improved precision. The system would have a much broader appeal if this were done.

I would think that a full blown boolean search system would be much easier to implement than Google's complex stemming search algorithm technology. Maybe that would go against Google's grain, moving back towards early internet search systems? However, as far as I know, boolean searching is still the most precise and useful method for finding legal opinions due to the incredibly hierarchical nature of our common law case reporting system that is filled with language that has a very precise legal meaning.

The efforts of the staff are laudable, and I hope they keep up the good work. I'm rooting for Google, and hope they do force the old timers (Wexisberg as you put it) to become more competitive.

Richard Leiter said...

Charlie, for the record. The interview happened on the BlogTalkRadion show, The Law Librarian. Greg was a guest on the show. A great contributor, to be sure, but so was Roger Skalbeck! Check out the interview on iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?i=78809050&id=295317995

It's worth a listen!


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