westlaw doesn’t get it- search with gradients, but without relevance

Sigh. So, kudos to westlaw for coming up with a new beta front page. Very clean, very google-like. (If you can’t see it, trust me.) Sadly, westlaw seems to think that the appeal of google is the clean look, rather than the good results.

If you search for ‘ebay v. mercexchange’ on google, you get the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case as the first hit, wikipedia, a blog post, and then the Federal Circuit’s (lower court) ruling on the case. This is pretty reasonable. Every hit on the page is relevant. They also got the ruling as the first hit within weeks of the ruling, which goes beyond reasonable and into ‘fairly impressive.’

When I searched for ‘ebay v. mercexchange’ on the new westlaw beta search a couple weeks after the ruling, I got… well, nothing referring to the Supreme Court. A bunch of commentary on the Federal Circuit’s decision. Some stuff on Indiana cities suing each other, and wills/estates. (WTF?) When I clicked around for a long time, I eventually found both decisions that Google finds immediately. Now, I get to commentary directly (better), but still no direct link to the case (still bad).

Now, I’m obviously not an expert, but I’m guessing someone searching for ‘ebay v. mercexchange’ is searching, 9 times out of 10, for the case itself. In fact, a teacher of legal research will tell you that you should never rely solely on commentaries- you should always read the case, as well as the commentaries, even if your intent is to first read the commentaries. So the should be result #1 (like it is in Google), followed by relevant background information and references (like Google.) That Westlaw still doesn’t get this is mind-boggling.

What makes Westlaw particularly maddening is that they should be able to measure relevance in much greater detail than Google can. Both Google and Westlaw have access to a rich database of documents which link to each other in a measurable, meaningful way. Westlaw has more- they can measure precisely how long people spend looking at documents, and know which results they click, in which order, when they run a search. And legal documents have a strict heirarchy which can be used to infer value when links are weak. And despite that, Westlaw still fails. (Lexis is no better.)

But hey, now the first search page you go to at westlaw has gradients. That counts for something, right?