Archive for the 'Research' Category

Google Answers for Lawyers

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

One of the principle tasks of a lawyer is research…lots of it! Even the most well-staffed law firm may find itself occasionally (continuously?) overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done in finding the best case law, conducting due diligence, untangling an intellectual property dispute, or looking for that prior art that you just know is out there, somewhere.

Lawyers can certainly hire a consulting service to assist them when its crunch time, but that takes a lot of effort to arrange, and a substantial budget to pull off.

Where to turn, when you need some fast, quality research assistance that won’t break the bank?

How about Google?

No, not Google, the automated search engine. Google, the researcher-staffed Answers service, which can be found at

Google Answers is as obscure as Google itself is famous. But it is a terrific service, especially for a lawyer in need of adjunct research talent. For a very modest fee, a team of Google Answers researchers stands ready 24/7 to provide high-quality, fast-turn-around work with almost no administrative hassle.

How Google Answers Works

Google has on contract a team of several hundred carefully-screened expert researchers. All of them are highly-skilled at using Google to mine the web, and uncover those little needles of information in the cyber-haystack that is the internet. But beyond simple Google searches, many of the researchers have access to other sources of information familiar to any law firm — Lexis-Nexis, Factiva, PACER, UCC records, and so on.

If you need the services of a researcher, you simply post your question to Google Answers, and set a fee. Whichever researcher feels that he or she can answer the question — and also feels that the price offered is fair! — will ‘lock’ the question and get to work on it. For a well-focused, attractively-priced question, you will often have an answer back in just a day or two, or in mere hours if you need it faster.

If a question needs some clarification, you and the researcher can engage in an online dialogue to pinpoint your needs more precisely.

What Google Answers Can Do

The best way to get a feel for what Google Answers can do, is to read through some of the questions and answers with a legal bent. Here’s a synopsis of a few questions my fellow researchers and I have worked on, along with a link to the full Q&A:

Due Diligence
Texas Sterling Construction
Researcher provided a detailed competitor-analysis that covered corporate identity, management, safety record, litigation, project awards, customer base, environmental issues, etc.

Prior Art
Early Online Frequent Shopper Programs
Google Answers provided documented examples of “electronic S&H stamps” prior to a specified date.

Divorce Law
Question about marital property in Virginia Research offered statute and case law pertaining to status of marital and separate property in the state of Virginia.

Intellectual Property — International
Intellectual property in the country of Beloruss
Provided an overview of the law and current practices regarding IP protection in Belarus

International Law
Conflict of Interest
An answer provided legal precedents in Canada for what constitutes a professional conflict of interest for architects.

Attorney Malpractice
PA case law
Client looking for a difficult-to-find example of misappropriated authority turned to Google Answers

Someone wants to know: What would happen to a lawyer in California who was arrested for using drugs?
There are Q&A’s at Google Answers that pertain to just about any area of law you can name. The site’s search function will let you easily explore other questions that may be of particular interest.

A Few Caveats

Google Answers can be an exceptionally valuable resource for the legal community. A key asset is its ease of use. It takes only minutes (and a credit card) to set up an account with Google. Simply click on the “Create a Google Account” link on the main Google Answers page to get started.

However, there are a few caveats worth noting about how Google Answers works:

–Everything posted at Google Answers is anonymous (you are identified only by a user name of your choice). At the same time, everything posted is publicly viewable. There is no option for direct, private communication between a lawyer and a researcher.

–Google Answers researchers will not provide information on living, private individuals. If you’re trying to track down the current address of a client’s long-lost sister, Google Answers is NOT the service for you.

–Google Answers cannot provide full copies of copyrighted materials, though they can certainly provide excerpts, full citations, or direct you to links for relevant materials.

–The maximum price that can be offered at Google Answers is $200 per question. While this can make the service an incredible value, it is also a constraint for larger projects. Of course, you can always post multiple $200 questions, but this is a bit awkward to manage. For a large effort, it’s best to engage a would-be researcher in a bit of dialogue to work out the best arrangement.

–And bear in mind that, as good as these researchers are, their real expertise in is in searching…very few of them are actual trained legal professionals.

As a final note, suppose you engage Google Answers and are unhappy with the results (it’s rare…but it does happen). The service has a very generous refunds policy…ask, and ye shall receive.

pafalafaga aka David Sarokin

How (not) to become a Google Answers Researcher

Friday, May 26th, 2006

People frequently ask how they can become a researcher for Google's Google Answers service. With a particularly delicious touch of irony, some even post their enquiry as a $2 question at Google Answers.

Truth is, it's not hard to find the answer. A Google search for become a google answers researcher (with or without quotes) will find the answer amongst the first page of links. Unfortunately, when people do find the answer, it's unlikely to be what they were hoping for.

What’s the name of that book?

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

Some of GA’s finest are very good in finding names of books, based on a brief description. This week, for example:

  • “gotisbrown3000” asked about an “Arthurian legend with homoerotic overtones”. Secret901 found the answer, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Secret is generous enough to reveal the secret – a small hint led him to read the relevant Wikipedia article
  • On the same day, “jengod1” was also helped, in the quest for a mystery treasure hunt book, read as a child. Jengodl even says that “I probably won’t get this answered since my “clues” are so vague”, but surprise! Bobbie7 seems to have found the answer: In Search of the Golden Horse by Sheldon Renan. What did Bobbie do? She also reveals her method: she searched the internet with keywords of the “vague clues”, adding the term “book”. In the thank-you-note, Jengod1 says: “I’m ashamed of myself. I thought I was gonna stump you guys. Naturally it only took, like, 2 minutes for a Google Researcher to figure it out.”

These are two good ways to find books you remember from your childhood: Wikipedia and searching the web for important keywords about the story. Another good way might be to use Amazon now have a search-engine that enables you to search inside books. That means that you can try to search for an unusual name, an unusual combination. Or… You can always try to stump those GARs…

Searching for Everything

Saturday, May 20th, 2006

Google’s mission in life — apart from making tons of money, becoming a verb, and (mostly) refraining from things evil — appears to be to provide the greatest amount of information possible to the greatest number of people.

Fine idea. And Google’s certainly doing a mighty fine job as far as the information on the web goes. But what about the great gobs of information that exist outside of the web itself? Some of this information sits on dusty library shelves, not yet in electronic form, and Google has, in fact, embarked on a very ambitious project to digitize entire college libraries (and copyright be damned, I say).

But there’s also a whole universe of information out there that already is in electronic format, and that already is accessible via the internet. But none of it is — yet — available through a Google search. If I had to venture a guess (and it appears that, yes, I have to!), I’d say these missing pieces of electronica are probably as large as the current, Google-searchable, piece of the internet.

And not only are they large…most of it is high-quality stuff. Materials that are consciously archived are generally deemed to be worthy of the effort exactly because they represent high quality information (searching the net is a blast, but we all know that there’s a lot of garbáge out there). But that high-quality-but-invisible information isn’t showing up when you Google for it. Information like…

PACER. The Public Access to Court Electronic Records is the US government’s effort at bringing the federal courts into the electronic age. They have semi-succeeded. PACER is an enormous dataset of federal court records that includes not only opinions, but the extensive, often arcane filings, that go into making up a case docket. It’s a combination of pointers to records along with actual documents themselves. It’s a mixed up, unwieldy, hit and miss, and very vast collection of information. It needs to be Googlized. There is a lot of other court information available at some federal courts that aren’t part of PACER, and at state and local courts as well, along with many court systems in other countries. All, all, all should be Googlized.

And while we’re on the topic of courts, there’s also…

Lexis-Nexis. How big is Lexis-Nexis. Can you say exabytes? OK, maybe not that large (yet)…but it’s well on it’s way. Lex-Nex is another source of court cases (including a lot of historical material) but it’s also much more: full-text newspapers, magazines, directories, professional forms, credit reports, public filings, attorney general opinions, and stuff I’m sure I haven’t discovered yet.

I have mixed feelings about linking Lex-Nex and Google. Google is free, Lex-Nex isn’t, and that can make for an unhappy marriage. But the content that Lex-Nex has to offer is so compelling, that it’s probably worth exploring opportunities. After all, Google already makes available snippets of information from subscription sources that — if you want the full text — you have to pay for it. The bulk of Google Scholar materials seems to fall into this territory.

Internet Archive. How can you not love the Wayback Machine? In spirit, this is the undertaking most like Google itself. In practice, though, it’s badly in need of a system upgrade. If Google would take Wayback by the hand, meld it with its own vast collection of archived pages, make the whole thing searchable, and basically lead Wayback into the light, then Oh, What a Wonderful World This Would Be.

Newspapers. The first rough draft of history is available online back at least to the 1700’s, in multiple archives, and from a variety of nations. In addition to mainstream publications like the New York Times, there are a host of others that offer important insights into corners of world history. like the Baltimore Afro American , the Johannesburg Sunday Times or the Sydney Morning Herald.

I haven’t even mentioned patents, copyright, trademarks, corporate annual reports (a particularly easy one!), and other electronic materials already available, though not search-engine-available.

Wouldn’t adding all this to a Google search just hopelessly clutter up the results page? It could, but it doesn’t have to. A search that recognizes that there is a lot of highly-relevant material in, say, a court case, could simply ask a question like “Do you wan’t to see these results with court cases included?”

Well…do you?

pafalafaga aka David Sarokin

The Tools of a Web Researcher

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

This is our continuing series on how a web researcher works (at least how I do mine). Today we will focus on basic tools. You can use other websites and software but basically for simple searches, these are all you need.

a. Search Engine

Primarily I use Google and most of the examples here utilized the latter in solving search problems. However, you can also use other search engines and in fact as you read along you will discover that you should utilize the one appropriate for the task.

I suggest you use the one with which you are more comfortable with. If it is Yahoo it’s ok just as long you don’t limit yourself to it each and every situation. Using your preferred search engine enables you to learn its more advanced inner workings. However, there is also a reason why lots of people use the more popular search engines since they simply produce results. So in case you are not using one of the top search sites, it might be worthwhile to be comfortable with them as well.

As you go along you will discover that the more important stuff is the thought process as I discussed previously and technology only comes in second.

b. Download the latest plug-ins and readers

Isn’t it frustrating that at times the website, wherein the information is found cannot be displayed properly by your browser? When doing research on the web, it is inevitable that you will come across different websites that have the information in audio or video and other files in different formats.

This book assumes that you are already familiar with browsers like Internet Explorer so aside from search engines, plug-ins and readers are the most important tools for the web researcher. Plug-ins are add-on tools to your web browser (like Internet Explorer, Netscape or Firefox) that enables you to view and even hear information in different formats. Here are the most plug-ins and readers that you will need to download:

  1. Acrobat Reader – A very good pdf file reader. Most case studies and academic papers are in pdf formats.
  2. Flash Player – Not just for fun cartoons or games, some websites produce a wealth of information on data produced as flash animations. Usually instead of powerpoint presentations they put them in flash.
  3. Updated versions of Windows Media Player, Real Audio and Quicktime – If ever you need to hear the information as an audio file, you will need these players.
  4. Viewers for Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint – You only need these in case you don’t have Microsoft office installed in your computers.

I arranged the software above in order of importance based on my personal experience. These are the types of files that you will encounter the most. Another thing, please have an anti-virus software since some of these files might be infected and could do harm to your system.

Google Notebook

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Google has launched a new service that could be immensely useful for researchers.


You sign in to your Google Account, then install the Google Notebook application (for Firefox it's an extension).

You can then select text or images from any page, and a right-click menu option lets you copy that snippet to your notebook. Alternatively, you can keep a notebook window open in your browser and click its “Add note” button. Google Notebook keeps track of the URL from which your snippet came.

You can have one or more notebooks, and you can keep them private or tell Google to make them public. You can organise your notes by dragging, and you can add your own text and headings. You can also directly edit the clipped text. Naturally, there's a search box (for your own notebook or for all public notebooks).

Whenever you're logged in to Google, the search results will have an added “Note this” link. When clicked, this changes to “Duly noted” and the link (and search result snippet) appear in your notebook.

This is a great way to collect information for a research task!

(via Google Blogoscoped)

For the Greater Google…

Monday, May 15th, 2006

All right, Google. You and Yahoo are cloning each other’s services (gigabyte e-mail, anyone?). Microsoft’s breathing down your back. AltaVista’s looking to make a comeback with cool, new, knock-yer-socks-off search features.

How do you stay on top in the searching-for-everything business?

There are a few things I’d like to see added to Google searching that can really make a difference. I’ll begin by mentioning a few today, and will grow the list over the course of a few posts.

It would be nice to also see the list grow with comments from fellow bloggers…I can’t be the only one with an unrequited yearning for new and cool power-search features, such as…

Special characters

No, I don’t mean Donald Duck or Donald Trump (not that they’re not both special). I’m talking about keyboard characters that we all use a zillion times over, but that no search engine on the face of the planet has opted to fully index.

Take the almighty dollar sign. Sometimes Google recognizes it, sometimes not. Google has a splendid number range feature, that can search for all numbers between, say, 5,000 and 10,000. But suppose I’m not interested in all numbers. Suppose I just want to zero in on webpages that mention prices and costs…and not in Yen or Pounds or Euros. Just good ol’ dollars. A search that consistently recognized $ could distinguish between ‘5,000 people spent $100 dollars each…’ and ‘100 people spent $5,000 each…”. And of course, the same feature for Yen and Pounds and Euros makes just as much searching sense in this globally-connected age of ours.

Percents. Same, thing, sort of, for the percent sign. It would be very cool and very convenient to be able to specify that a search is looking for numbers-as-percents, rather than any old number that happens to happen by. The percents issue also brings up the topic of symbol and numeral ‘translations’ (for want of a better term), of which, there is more below.

Escargot. Bet you didn’t know that’s what the French sometimes call the @ sign. It does look like a snail, non? The nefarious, ubiquitous, emminently spammable at-sign…Why the hell can’t we search for it? Obvious, you say? Because the spammers will then be able to get email addresses off the internet? Well…big news flash!…they already can, using specialized harvesting software. But for all the rest of us, searching for the occasional email address is made overly difficult by the inability of search engines to recognize @ as part of their searches. I, for one, would love to be able to find some addresses, so I could contact a few of their customer service humans when I’m feeling the need for some human-to-human customer service.

Symbol/Number/Name/Abbreviation Translations.

Have you ever wanted to search for an exact hit on 10% ? I have. But how many ways can 10% can be written…! 10%. 10 percent. 10 per cent. Ten percent. Ten per cent. And there are probably a few that I’m missing. So, not only should Google learn to recognize the percent sign, it should learn to ‘translate’ some mainstream items like %, so that my poor carpal-tunneled fingers don’t have to type the same phrase six different ways. In addition to percents, Google should be able to translate “a hundred dollars” as “100 dollars” and “$100”. Bob and Bill should translate as Robert and William. Corp as Corporation, Ltd as Limited. “Baltimore & Ohio” as “Baltimore and Ohio” In essence, Google already ‘translates’ misspellings, so why not take the next logical step?

That’s all the brain dump I’m dumping for now.

‘Till next time…

Dave aka pafalafaga

The Mind of a Web Researcher

Monday, May 15th, 2006

How does the mind of a web researcher work? How should you prepare before you research online?

First of all, don’t worry if you are not an expert on a subject. In fact you don’t have to know the subject very well to perform good research.

Let us start with this premise since this is one of the most important lessons I learned as time went by. The web is a very vast repository of knowledge that it is hard not to find anything on something that has been discussed before. If ever you will be asked something that is not very familiar to you, read on the very basics first.

One example will be finding new trends about “usb drives”. Here are the necessary steps:

  1. If you don’t know what a usb drive is then to know its basic definitions first. If you need to go to a kids website to understand it then do it. There is no shame in that since it’s your own PC anyway.
  2. After that know its history so you could appreciate the trends you will find out later.
  3. After getting a good historical perspective, we can now find new articles about the topic. Again treat this on a case to case basis. Usually for technology related subjects, an article done one to two years ago will still be good but the more recent the better. If you’re looking for trends as to social issues like “parent teen relationships” then even a seven to ten year span can be acceptable.

Next time we will discuss what your mindset should be when you use search engines.

Usenet Timeline

Monday, May 15th, 2006

Forgotten or unknown to many young internet users is a historical part of the web, the usenet. Before the graphic oriented browsers and usage of html became common messages and discussions were led in the usenet.

Google offers access to about 800 million messages dating back to the early 80’s, some funny and interesting examples can be found here.

The whole archive of the usenet is reachable via the google groups.

A Useful tool for academic research

Sunday, May 14th, 2006

From my discussions with fellow grad-students and students, I have noticed that Google Scholar is not so well known as it should be. Scholar is not so new, and is a wonderful tool for anyone looking for “serious” academic references for their work. Scholar scans academic databases in several languages; and then lists the results.

The “regular” Google Index indexes and ranks pages according to their “PageRank” (and basically, although the formula is much more complex, according to links popularity). Scholar ranks the results according to the academic equivalent of link-popularity (or backlinks), which is the “back citations” (or the number of citations of this source in other sources). Since it could be agreed that generally, in the academic world, if you are more widely cited, you are more important; this is very useful. Not only that, but you can browse through the articles that have cited your source, and might find further resources for your research.

Scholar is supposed to solve one painful problem when searching for serious information on the web: the huge quantities of rubbish, unsubstantiated information and plain lies. It doesn’t solve the problem. Not entirely. First of all, because one can also write academic rubbish. In addition, with the haste of widening the scope of Scholar, Google have inserted some sources that are more magazine commentary type than academic stuff. But one should always apply a critical analysis of the text one reads, right?

Scholar results also include some academic databases where an article could be found, or – in the case of books – a reference to the Google Print version of a book. But this is only the beginning. Its advanced features include things that are even neater.

  • Language preferences: one can choose articles/books only in certain languages (English, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese, right now)
  • Library Link: Any library can add itself to the Scholar database. If your library is part of the programme (mine, unfortunately, isn’t), you can see if the book/journal is available at the library.
  • You can import the bibliographic details to one of several footnoting softwares, like EndNote.

The former three could be managed using the “preferences” link next to the Scholar search option. The following are ‘Advanced’ options:

  • You can search articles by author, or by the journal.
  • You can limit the years of publication.
  • You can limit the discipline

Now, no more excuses for not writing my dissertation, right?