Bacal's Internet Legal Research Guide

Using Search Engines

So how do you start your research on the Internet? Of course, it depends on what you’re looking for, but one of the best ways to find out if there are any relevant articles or other presentations on the Net is to use various search engines.

What To Expect

Searches on the Internet simply do not usually bring you promptly to the point where you want to be. Initially a search of each search engine will provide you with lists of collections of information, and only a minority of these references is likely to contain relevant materials. You will then need to wade through the more promising of these references, screen by screen, link by link. Picture yourself physically going into an Internet library room. Instead of finding a single computerized card catalog, you are confronted with many different computerized card catalogs in the form of search engines, each one promising to be thorough in its coverage. But lo and behold when you first search a phrase in one catalog, it may give you a very different result than a second search conducted through another catalog. The so-called search engines of the Internet turn out to differ from one another as much as automobile engines differ in performance.

It's Important To Know the Differences

When performing searches through search engines, it is important that the researcher become familiar with the search protocol, limitations, and peculiarities of the particular search vehicle. Some search engines provide helpful annotations with the search results, while others do not. The number of search engines available increases every year. Some of the most popular search engines for the early 21st Century are Google (my current favorite), Vivismo, Ask Jeeves,, and Yahoo.

Specialized legal search engines like Findlaw are also popular. Some of the general search engines, like Yahoo, provide what is alleged to be more focused versions; for example, Yahoo has a different searching version for Intellectual Property generally, than for trademarks and for copyrights specifically. In practice, these specialized versions do not, in my experience, provide materially better or quicker results than some other more comprehensive and more up-to-date search engines (e.g., Google). Keep in mind that the way search engines locate things on the web and index them, and the frequency of updating, varies from search engine to search engine. Some are months behind in indexing. Google tends to be among the most current.

There are also multi-search engine searchers such as and, which each combine several search engines. Although the idea of using a multiple search engine searcher is attractive, sometimes this slows down the researcher because it may include marginal search engines which will then deliver irrelevant information. You just need to experiment and see what works best for you.

Selecting the Right Engine

Finding the right search engine or even preferred search engines is a matter of trial and error. In an article of this length, it is impossible to give a detailed description of all the various search engines that are available. Instead, suffice it to say that within each search engine there is usually a path to additional search engines. A regular user of the Internet will quickly build a personal collection of preferred search engines. Also remember that a researcher can use a search engine to search for other search engines as well. Some examples of sites which compare and review other search engines include the Search Engines in Review (, the Search Engine Showdown (, the Search Engine Watch website (, and the Kansas City Public Library Introduction to Search Engines (

The Internet Should Supplement & Not Substitute

For a penny-wise legal researcher, there may be a temptation to use the Internet to substitute for first tier, pure legal research on fee based databases. This temptation should be resisted for a variety of reasons. In terms of case law research, the Internet is a chaotic place to try to find relevant cases. It is true that Supreme Court opinions are available online and more and more courts are posting cases. Litigants are also offering up copies of decisions in their own cases. But the Internet is by no means a comprehensive or well indexed source of legal research, and free search engines cannot snatch the sophistication, varied search techniques (e.g., transaction, "within" a sentence or paragraph, etc.), and effectiveness of the subscription based legal research services.

My advice is to confine the Internet to, at most, a second level of legal research, and transactional drafting assistance, and not for primary case law research or "standard" documents. The Internet may be useful in helping to locate articles or sample transactions posted by lawyers and law firms on topics of interest that might not be available elsewhere. Articles by lawyers can also lead you to experts and counsel with whom one might associate on a particular matter. Often a lawyer who has already been there can point you in the right direction at a fraction of the cost of your getting there on your own.

Librarians of the Net

There are companies, who advertise on the Internet, who will provide automatic regular searches or sweeps of the Internet of given topics or names for a fee. These folks are the new librarians-for-hire of the Internet, who will gladly help you wade through the escalating mass of materials—for a price. These services can prove useful if you do not have the time or discipline to make such regular checks, and there is a business reason for doing so (e.g., to check to see if a client’s mark is being used by third parties properly as a trademark and not as a generic term). However, with practice, you should be able to find your own way without paid help for the usual research assignments.

A Search Example

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