So lots has been written about WestlawNext. Much more detailed analysis has been floating around. So rather than rehash what’s already been said all over the web, I’m going to provide some random thoughts I had about the project as I was sitting in the meeting at Eagan, MN. These are just from some notes I jotted down, that I think are interesting. Disclosure (again): Thomson Reuters paid my way to Eagan and put me up for the trip.
1. Attorneys do not look at documents on Westlaw beyond the first 5 to 10 results. I suspect it’s the same for Lexis, and pretty much any search site nowadays
This is what they found when researching how attorneys used Westlaw. I know that this is a problem on Google, one that has led to the emergence of the Search Engine Optimization industry, that search results beyond the first few almost do not exist. But to hear that attorneys by and large will rerun a search if desired search results don’t show up within the first few hits is very… I’ll say illuminating. Is this a failure on the part of firms, librarians, legal education, or attorneys themselves? Is it a failure at all, or just how research is done in the Google age, something that databases, search engines, librarians must simply accept as a modern research practice? WestlawNext is now accommodating this practice, as will other vendors I’m sure. Should librarians?
2. Analyzing customer usage to make the relevancy rankings more relevant, in particular measuring “meaningful interaction with documents”
For me, this may have been the most welcoming revelation about the new WestSearch relevancy rankings. They wanted to take user behavior into account in relevance rankings. But users click on documents in search results which are irrelevant. So how do you measure document relevance to a search. WestSearch incorporates what they called “meaningful interaction with a document” as signifying relevance to the search. Meaningful interaction may include actions like keyciting a document, printing a document, citing with reference, saving it to a folder, downloading, etc. These are the types of actions that were found to signify a relevant document. WestSearch will incorporate these actions into relevance rankings.
In addition to search results, WestlawNext will analyze documents saved to their folder system. The theory is that documents that appear in the same folder may have links between them and can also improve relevancy rankings.
What does this mean? It means that Westlaw’s relevancy rankings should continually improve as more people start using the system. Awesome.
3. All browsers will be supported. But Chrome is the best
Gone are those annoying pop-up windows, and messages telling us that something is best viewed on Internet Explorer. WestlawNext will be available on all browsers (Chrome is coming in mid-February). That means Mac users, Firefox users, Chrome users, Safari users will all be able to use WestlawNext on their desired platform. This is a very welcome development. It also makes me think that Westlaw may have been listening to all the user complaints about browser compatibility. Oh, by the way. Their studies found that Chrome was the most steady, fastest, most reliable browser.
4. Synchronization across all platforms
Save a document to your folder on WestlawNext online. Access it from your mobile device later. WestlawNext has been built with portability in mind. As we enter an age where people expect content to be accessible across multiple platforms, WestlawNext appears to deliver.
5. Possibility of command searching
Librarians seem to be worried about the disappearance of boolean searching. I am excited about the possibility of command searching. Currently in WestlawNext if you type “keycite [citation]” you go directly to a keycite report for that citation. Not a big deal, as Greg Lambert mentioned on the video I posted earlier. But imagine the possibility of typing “define [term]” and going straight to the definition in Black’s Law Dictionary. How about typing “ALR Index [term]” going straight to the ALR index. Do you see where I’m going with this? This system seems ripe for these types of shortcuts, and I am excited about some of the possibilities opened up by it. Whether or not others will be as impressed, or if and when these capabilities will be fully explored in WestlawNext has yet to be seen. But I would like to see it.
6. Super Bonus Final Random Thought
There is a lot more to think about with regards to WestlawNext. The system is by no means perfect. There are other issues to consider, like pricing.
But this new system is obviously a major shift in legal research. Couple this new product with Bloomberg, and the new Lexis product coming later this year, and alternatives like FastCase and the entire ecosystem of legal research may be completely different by this time next year.
I know some librarians and others are worried about what this means. But I think the application of modern search techniques, coupled with new web technologies may open up a whole new world of legal research for us. I look forward to some much needed changes.