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Law Library

Background Factual Research Online: Online Searching

Learn how to thoroughly research the background of a legal issue online.

Online Searching

Researching online is slightly different from using a standard database. Unlike most databases, the resources available online haven't been vetted for quality or for relevance to a particular topic. Selecting precise keywords is especially important when searching online, where the number of results from a single search may easily number in the thousands, and the use of a synonym may mean you miss a relevant document entirely.

It is especially important to verify the relevance and accuracy of search results online. Search engines rely on algorithms that may not rate the same factors in relevancy that a legal database would, and increasingly rely on popularity to determine if a result is relevant. If many other people have viewed or linked to a particular page, that page will move up in the results rankings, even if it is neither reliable, recent, or particularly relevant to the search. Similarly, pages with content related to items you have clicked on in the past will receive a relevance boost in most search engines (the notable exceptions are those focused on privacy, like DuckDuckGo and StartPage). It is surprisingly easy to select what appears to be a relevant link and wind up on an unofficial, biased, or out of date website that initially appears reliable.

Search Engines

There are a range of search engines to select from when searching online, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It is important when using any search engine to remember that you are never truly searching the full internet. Most search engines only search top-level pages, are unable to access content behind paywalls, and may be blocked from some sites by code embedded by the website owners. Search engines are also commercially driven, and treat researchers primarily as a potential consumer. Alternative or specialist search engines can help to manage these issues.