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The author is the manager of knowledge management at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, New York City, and author of How to Find Out Anything (to be published in August 2012 by Prentice Hall Press).
Hiding in plain sight are some tools that can quickly improve the quality of your Google search results, help you save time, and produce custom-tailored results that simple keyword searching can’t deliver on its own. These are the techniques no litigator should do without.
Of all Google’s powers, the ability to restrict your search to an upper-level domain or to a specific website is one of the search engine’s most beneficial and least used features. However, the function won’t allow you to find web pages that live behind paywalls, password-protected sites, or other sites to which access is restricted.
Let’s start with the domain searches. Top-level domains are the now familiar .com or .co for commercial sites, .edu for educational sites, .org for non-profits, and the two-letter country codes for the nations of the world such as .fr for France, .it for Italy, or .jp for Japan. To restrict your search to one of these domains, add site:[domain] to your search. For example, say you need to look up the latest medical research on the statin drug Lipitor but want the research to come only from an official U.S. government website, excluding pages from companies, university sites, and the rest. Run the search like this: Lipitor site:.gov
Google will obey your command and faithfully retrieve search results pointing exclusively to government websites. This is certainly a useful feature, but take the same principle one more step, and you can focus Google’s search power on individual websites. If you’ve ever wasted time clicking through complex menus or running searches on built-in search boxes that never turn up accurate results, you’ll discover that Google can dig up information in a fraction of the time it takes to wait out the fancy Flash splash screen.
Government pages especially, including many state and federal court sites, use clunky web design and rely on built-in search engines that don’t work very well. To overcome those shortcomings, use Google to search a specific website as indicated below:
“local rules” site:nysd.uscourts.gov
Imagine how useful it would be for a litigator to be able to produce a web page that has recently been removed from a publicly available site. When a site’s managers post something and later decide to remove the content, for reasons innocent or nefarious, that page can linger in this world a little longer in the limbo of Google’s cache.
The idea behind the cache is simple. Google’s powerful computers periodically crawl (or “spider”) the Internet to locate web pages and draw back information about them so that you are able to search the resulting collection. Normally, when you search Google, what you see are the results of Google’s most recent crawl. But Google also keeps a copy of its previous crawl.
To see the cache copy of a web page, run a search and then use the “Instant Preview” button to the right of a result to open the page in preview mode. Click on “cached” in the header of the preview, and Google will show the page as it appeared the previous time Google spidered it. If the site has changed significantly between crawls, especially if pages that once existed have since been removed, you’ll be able to pull up the older version. It’s an interesting feature that can sometimes uncover documents or texts that otherwise might not be readily available. The caution here is to be quick on your feet, because once Google’s never-resting computers crawl the site again, today’s version moves to the cache and today’s cache disappears from public view. Exactly when and how often Google crawls a given site depends on many factors, but don’t dawdle if you think some interesting information might still lurk within the cache.
That said, let’s digress for a moment. As useful as Google’s cached feature is, its scope is limited. To really reach back in time and dig through the content of web pages from months or years ago, use the Wayback Machine (www.archive.org/web/web.php). The Wayback Machine (named for the device made famous by canine genius Mr. Peabody in the 1960s cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle) is a service of the Internet Archive. It will deliver a view of a website or domain as it existed in days gone by. According to the site, more than 150 billion web pages from 1996 to within the past few months—Google can take it from there—are preserved in digital amber. Even though you won’t be able to search the archives using keywords, time spent browsing old sites can sometimes yield nuggets of information about prior business relationships, products, and other information of interest to an adverse party.
One caveat, though: Before you count on using the results of your search, be sure to read the FAQs for Lawyers (www.archive.org/legal/faq.php). The Internet Archive has limited resources with which to respond to requests for authentication of results. It can provide a standard affidavit attesting to the accuracy of archived results, but because the foundation that operates the Wayback Machine is a small, nonprofit operation, don’t count on getting these documents in a hurry.
Google also has features that help you ask a better question. By using these handy syntax tools, you’ll discover that the research results list will be both shorter and more likely to contain relevant hits than results lists produced by typing in keywords.
First, use the hyphen to exclude terms. Because Google routinely returns millions of hits in response to most searches, getting rid of the useless ones is critical. Where Lexis and Westlaw rely on the Boolean “and not” to exclude information from a search string, Google has the minus sign (the hyphen, actually). Put it in front of a search term, and you’re telling Google to exclude any mention of that word from the results. For example,
excludes references to Newt Gingrich in your research return list, and
returns a list that includes legal briefs but not "underwear" as a synonym for “briefs.”
Second, don’t forget the quotation marks. One of Google’s admirable traits in devising search software is its dedication to helping users find something they need. Litigators know all too well, however, that language is a slippery thing. For the engineers at Google, the task of understanding exactly what a user wants is a profoundly challenging programming problem. Google tackles the problem by checking your spelling, searching for synonyms, matching similar terms to those in your search, and stemming words (like finding “falling” and “falls” when you simply search for “fall”).
Despite Google’s computing horsepower devoted to transforming a keyword search into a meaningful display of results, sometimes you know precisely what you’re looking for. In those instances, you can effectively turn off Google’s tools and command it to just return pages containing your exact entry by putting quotation marks around the search word or phrase, like so: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg”; “intellectual property law”; “motion to dismiss.” It’s a powerful tool for precision searching.
Last, use OR to search similar terms simultaneously. To Google, a space between search terms means “and.” If you want to search more than one item at the same time and the terms do not need to appear on the same web page, separate the words with OR:
recipe lasagna OR souvlaki OR hamburgers
“class action” suit OR litigation OR lawsuit
Every web page has well-defined parts. Each has a unique address known as a uniform resource locator (URL), and most have a title, links to it, and text. Given that conscientious web designers take pains to put potentially valuable information in the title of a page, effective search results can be generated simply by telling Google to search just the titles. To do so, open the Advanced Search template by clicking on the gear icon and select “in the title of the page” from the box labeled “terms appearing:”.
To give you an idea of how this feature might be useful to litigators, imagine your client owns a famous trademark and wants to make sure that no one is peddling on the web counterfeit goods that infringe the mark. An ordinary Google search may reveal websites selling the illegal goods, but searching for the trademark text in the title of web pages will be more revealing.
“Surprise me” is not a phrase most lawyers use; all the ones I know hate to be blindsided. So to keep on top of developments and to save your fingers from hours of daily Google searching, set alerts on clients, cases, judges, companies, or whatever else you don’t want throwing you a surprise party. You specify the subjects that interest you at www.google.com/alerts. Use all the syntax controls from Google Search for precision in defining the alerts you want to receive, and then select news, websites, blogs, or all of the above. Current information will pour into your in-box without additional effort, for free.
Longtime Westlaw and Lexis users know that date restrictions on searches are a godsend. But Google users are too often content to wade through a hodgepodge of results with links to pages from all over the calendar. In those instances when you’re looking for materials published within a certain date range, trim away the irrelevant results by filtering by date, something that Google calls “Any time.”
After you run a search, refer to the left navigation pane on a results list where Google offers a list of time frames. The custom range is the most flexible method if you’re confident that the results you’re looking for appeared on the web between two specific dates. In any event, this tool will save you plenty of time, which you would have spent filtering links like Goldilocks, weeding out the ones that are too old from the ones that are too new in order to find the ones that are just right.
To find out the owners of a domain name, look up the “whois” record by searching whois [domain name]. For example, to see who owns the domain name www.microsoft.com, simply Google whois www.microsoft.com to retrieve the record.
Stuck for a definition? Can’t remember whether the word is spelled eleemosynary or ellemosynary? Type define: [word], as in define:barratry, to pull up the correct spelling and definitions from a wide range of online dictionaries.
By the way, “barratry” means “vexatious litigation.” Using these tools might make you feel less vexed.