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Legal Research Process

What is Google?

Google is a free internet search engine. Although part of Google's appeal is the ability to search using simple, intuitive keywords or natural language, trying to do legal research in this way can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The discussion here covers selected Advanced Search options. (Google Scholar as a resource for law review articles and case law is covered elsewhere.)

When to Use Google

If you use Google at the start of the research process, it can help with subject matter issue spotting and identifying relevant jurisdictions. In this way, you can get a sense of what keywords and terms of art will produce the best results from other resources you will use later in the research process. The search results from Google can help you get a sense of the extent to which your topic involves case law, statutory law, and administrative law.

How to Use Google: Search Tips

It can be helpful to use Google Advanced Search or review Google's search help page for such tips as:

  • Search only in a specific website or domain – (site:): If you want your search to produce only results from a specific website, type the web address, then a colon, then the search term. This is a good way to narrow your search to more reliable sources from government, nonprofit, and educational institutions. Example: [fracking site:epa.gov]. For instance, if a government website does not have a good search engine, this is a way to search only that site more effectively. You can also restrict the search to a specific domain by placing the domain after the colon.  Example: [fracking site:.gov] or [fracking site:.edu]. This feature is also available on the "Advanced Search" page as search within a "site or domain."
  • Phrase search – (“”): When you put quotations marks around a search phrase, Google still won't search that exact phrase, but it does help indicate that proximity is important. Example: [“equal protection”].
  • Page-specific tools: Use Google's search operators to find what pages link to a particular page (link:google.com) or what pages are similar to a particular page (related:nytimes.com).
  • File type: Oftentimes, law related organizations release their content via pdf. On the "Advanced Search" page after running an initial search, you can restrict your search to PDF file types.
  • Last update: Under "Search Tools" after running an initial search or on the "Advanced Search" page, restricting your search to web content that was updated within the last year, or even more recently, can help return the most current information.
  • "Searches related to . . .": After running an initial search, at the bottom of the search results page, Google will suggest alternative searches with varying, related search terms.

Strengths & Weaknesses of Google

Unlike law-specific resources such as Lexis or Westlaw, Google will provide you any results that match your keyword search—even if the results do not pertain to the law or are from non-scholarly sources. Therefore, when using Google, you should proceed with greater attention to the relevancy and validity of the sources you find, such as narrowing your search .edu or .gov websites. Compared to Lexis or Westlaw, Google's tools for assessing a source's currency are of less utility in legal research, and to the extent that a citator function exists, it is only for Google Scholar. This lack of specific legal emphasis, coupled with the absence of many of the powerful search tools offered by Lexis, Westlaw, and print resources, means you must be mindful when using Google.