Answering Legal Questions with Google

Throughout the planning process for the State Decoded project, I have made the basic assumption that the primary source of traffic for implementations of the software would be from search engines. People typing in things like “‘following too closely’ virginia,” “boundary law in kentucky,” or “grand larceny illinois bad checks,” who would be led directly to the law that in question, presented within a context that would make that law understandable to them. This usage pattern is one of the major concepts behind the project.

Nine weeks after launching the Virginia website, it’s been indexed by Google thoroughly, though it has few enough third-party links that it has a PageRank of just 4 (out of 10). In the past week, Virginia Decoded has had 458 keyword-bearing referrers from Google. Not one of those search phrases has been used more than 7 times. 4 of them have been used 3–7 times. 14 of them have been used 2 times. The remaining 440 were used just 1 time. This is a very flat distribution. I’d call it a “long tail” of search results, but it’s all tail—basically a snake.

Many of these search terms are extremely specific (e.g., “what does it mean when an employee returns to his position on an active employment basis for 45 consecutive calendar days or longer any succeeding period of disability shall constitute a new period of short term disability”), and dozens are for specific sections of the Code (e.g., “18.2-460″). Many appear to be people trying to solve problems (e.g. “transfer an inspection sticker to a new windshiled [sic],” “virginia code failure to file tax,” “what is the penalty for a failure to appear in va”).

Some of these search terms return results that would not otherwise yield useful results from the official Code of Virginia website. For instance, “why va. code 18.2-361(a) is unconstitutional” returns Virginia Decoded’s § 18.2-361 record because it includes all court decisions that cite § 18.2-361, notably William Scott McDonald, a/k/a William Scott MacDonald v. Commonwealth, which has an court-provided abstract that reads:

This Court finds that Code Section 18.2-361(A) is constitutional as applied to appellant because his violations involved minors and merit no protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; appellants convictions of four counts of sodomy are affirmed

§ 18.2-361 is still on the books, and somebody looking at the law on the state’s official website would have no way of knowing that portions of it have been judged unconstitutional by the Virginia Court of Appeals. By putting court decisions on the same page as the law, Google inferred that they are related, indexed all of the content together, and returned this far-more-useful result to somebody posing a basic question about the law’s constitutionality.

People referred to Virginia Decoded via a Google search stick around for a minute and a half, which isn’t brilliant, but it’s not too shabby, either. They look at an average of 2.68 pages, which is also decent. With just 458 keyword-bearing Google referrers in the past week, though, there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement in overall referrers, something that will be helped with the passage of time, as more sites link to Virginia Decoded and its PageRank climbs.

The plan here was to turn entire state codes into enormous targets for search traffic to help people solve problems and better understand the laws that govern them. Traffic records bear out that at least the former half of that plan is being fulfilled. That accomplished, I can concentrate more on the latter, which was always going to be the real work.