Web search is a cornerstone of online legal research. Google, Yahoo!, and Bing remain starting points for lawyers and others to perform research outside of the fee-based providers. Both Google and Bing have put additional social elements into their search engine results pages (SERP). These are intended to both float up results that are included in social networks and that may be more timely. They are also part of increasing shifts towards providing personalized search results, with Google mining information based on your Google account, and Bing latching on to your Facebook account, if you link it to your search account.
Unfortunately, searchers seem to be resistant to these changes. There is good reason. First, relevant social results require linkages to your social accounts. People participate in a social network for a variety of reasons, but it does not necessarily mean that those messages are more relevant. In particular, if your social networks are not related to your research – personal v. professional, for example – they may bear no relation to the topic you are interested in.
Another challenge is that personalized results re-order the results to attempt to fit your previous search activities. If you search across a variety of areas, or mix personal and professional search within the same account, you may find the custom results page is submerging relevant results. You can turn personalized search off in Google – or keep your account unlinked from Facebook in Bing – but otherwise you can find your results skewed. Personalized search may bring some benefits, like the recent addition of search into your Google Mail and Drive contents, but it changes your research.
Bing has seen its search market share drop after introducing social search into their results. Google has had negative reaction to its implementation as well. Legal researchers need to watch for how personalization can impact their search. If you have the need to search social results – blog, Twitter, or that sort of information – you are probably better using a social search engine like Topsy.