Keep Calm and Carry On - Google's Knowledge Graph and LawyersThe last couple years have seen significant changes in the way Google handles indexing and search results, including Panda (rewarding high quality content), Search Plus Your World (social search integration), and Penguin (over-optimization penalty).  Actually, Google changes its search algorithm up to 500 – 600 times each year, although most of these changes are minor.  Every few months, however, Google rolls out a “major” algorithmic update.  (for anyone interested, SEOmoz maintains an extensive Google Algorithm Change History)

It appears that Google is just about to roll out another one of these “major” updates.  No, it’s not called Panther or Peacock, its called “Knowledge Graph.”  In short, the Knowledge Graph is Google’s attempt to make its search engine smarter, more intuitive and deliver more visual results.  Just as Facebook uses a “social graph” to keep track and associate data about people and their friends, Google’s Knowledge Graph is a set of associated data about a specific search query.

How it works:

When you run a search on Google, you will now see large panels with additional factual information about the topic you were searching for in the right side of Google’s search result pages.  (on a side note, it will be interesting to see how ad placement is adjusted).  These new panels are powered by the Knowledge Graph and will serve two functions.

First, Google will show you a panel with a summary of relevant information about your query (examples include bio info for people such as celebrities, sports scores and lineups for a team, tourist info about a vacation destination, etc. – think people, places and things).  The panel will also show you related topics as well.  All without ever visiting a website.

Second, Google will allow you to clarify what exactly you are looking for – essentially choosing between similar terms with different meanings.  For example, if I search for “Red Wings”, I will get search results related to the Detroit Red Wings and Red Wing Shoes.  This new panel would quickly allow you to select the right one and return only the related results.

Effects on Legal Search:

The title of this post mentions “potential” improvements to legal search because it remains to be seen what the effects will be in the legal search realm, specifically because (a) it just launched; (b) the data in the knowledge graph appears to be from a limited (but still large) number of sources; (c) it’s unclear what searches will trigger the panels (lawyer bios in a panel are not likely at this time); and (d) not everything Google does works (Google Wave….)

However, here are some thoughts about what could happen.

1)  Easier and quicker to find lawyers or legal concepts

The bio panels have the potential to easily summarize relevant info about a specific lawyer.  Moreover, the clarification panels may help searchers quickly filter and find the right information about a specific lawyer.  For example, I could quickly find all information about Mark Zuckerberg, the Indianapolis bankruptcy lawyer, instead of Mark Zuckerberg, the millionaire billionaire using the panel

Similarly, you may be able to narrow legal concepts with the new panel.  For example, if you want to find info about Requests for Production (RFPs) instead of Requests for Proposals (also RFPs).

Finally, there is great potential in the “related topics” feature, in terms of legal search.  Perhaps a searcher doesn’t know much about the legal issue they are facing, and querying.  The related topics could help them discover, learn, and ultimately be better prepared if and when they do contact a lawyer.

2)  Smarter search and better access to legal information

The goal of these changes seems to be to help users more accurately find what they are looking for – essentially moving beyond just understanding the words typed into the search engine and getting a better understanding of the user’s goal.  The hope is that this will result in users getting to more accurate and more useful legal information online, instead of confusing or SEO’ed content.  As one commentator stated, the more intuitive search results are consistent with Google’s efforts to deliver on user demands for “answers, not links”.

The further hope is that search may eventually understand more complex legal questions and direct searchers to the content, and more importantly, the lawyer, that can best answer that question.  (if you are an attorney, and are looking for a place to curate and showcase your niche expertise in order to connect with such searchers, check out the RFPattorney legal network)

3)  Better legal writing

Google’s new focus could help the search process evolve in the right direction and push all lawyers to write for humans instead of search engines.  Writing for humans = better legal writing = better access to the law.

4)  Individual lawyer presence preferred over firm presence

As highlighted in a nice post at poynter.com, “the knowledge panels displayed people more frequently than publications, which could reinforce the value of individual journalist’s brands over institutional ones.”   Along the same lines, this innovation could result in a preference for the individual lawyer presence online over the presence of that lawyer’s firm.  This is a good result, as clients hire lawyers, not law firms.

5)  Less website traffic

On the other hand, if the information that a searcher is looking for is delivered right on the search engine results page, there may be less of a need to actually visit a website.  Therefore, this could lead to less website traffic.

Time will certainly tell, but one thing is certain – this won’t be the last Google tweak.  However, if you are like some people, you can ignore these search engine tweaks altogether, and just “create awesome content.”

Ryan Bowers

Founder of RFPattorney.com and author of the RFPattorney Blog. Over 8 years of experience practicing law, including past experience at an international law firm, a national law firm, and a small firm. Currently GC and VP Operations for large mechanical construction company. Midwesterner, home renovator, golden retriever wrangler, new dad, Wolverine, & avid hockey fan.

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