When several reputable SEO publications ran with the story that Google intended to introduce facts as a search-engine ranking factor. Google themselves were quick to disavow this, stating that the idea exists only in one of the several thousands of research papers they produce every year.
While this doesn’t look like making its way into Google’s algorithm anytime soon, it is an insight into the direction they are taking in their self-professed quest to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Google calls the concept “Knowledge-Based Trust” (KBT), and, if it comes to fruition, it will be used to augment their traditional link-based approach to determining how valuable a web page is.
Google traditionally uses extrinsic signals to determine the quality of a page. Namely, links to the page from other sources. That, along with keywords which allow Google to make sense of a site’s content and categorise it appropriately, alongside many other technical ranking factors.
With the introduction of KBT, Google would use intrinsic factors to determine a page’s quality. This is to say that the inherent factual accuracy of the page itself would be a key determinant of its ranking position. In one test, only 20 of 85 factually correct sites were ranked more highly than their factually dubious equivalents. A change to a fact-based algorithm could have an enormous impact in terms of which information is presented to us in search.
What does this mean for online business generation for solicitors?
Theoretically, this makes the esoteric world of search engine optimisation more intelligible to solicitors. The legal profession deals with facts, evidence and citations every day. Indeed, the concept of facts deployed as tokens in the pursuit of a particular outcome is the very basis of an adversarial legal system.
In the legal world, the case which has the most ‘facts’ (in terms of precedents or compelling arguments) usually wins. Should this particular Google venture come to fruition, it will be the page with the most ‘facts’ that will win.
Google regularly builds up its database of facts from a variety of sources including Wikipedia, the CIA world factbook and other reputable sources. If, for instance, one searches for Fernando Torres’ birthday, Google presents not a link to a webpage, but the following information in their knowledge graph:
Google clearly has a picture of Fernando Torres as an individual with certain facts associated with him. Google treats facts as tripartite entities comprising of a subject (in this case, Fernando Torres); a relationship (his birthday) and a value (10th March 1984).
Google already has a huge volume of facts in its ‘Knowledge Base’. The various facts in the box to the right of El Nino’s picture are all those Google has stored about the Atletico Madrid striker. Google has been presenting these results for a while now. Google calls this the “Knowledge Graph.”
Searching for a film will populate this box with the cast, ratings from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, the director, the film’s running time and sources where you can buy or watch the film. So, this is nothing new, then.
What is new is the inclusion of ‘facts’ as a ranking factor. So, if your site has information about the Grand Budapest Hotel or Fernando Torres and either omits relevant facts or has them wrong (such as Fernando Torres playing for Bayern Munich or David Fincher directing Grand Budapest Hotel) then Google will rank your page accordingly.
What does this mean for law firms who want to succeed online and beat their competitors?
Clearly, it’s difficult for an algorithm to discern anything more than the most basic of facts. When someone’s birthday is or which country a city is in is straightforward and is not a matter of dispute. The waters muddy when we consider that, in a great many legal cases, the facts are immutable but what differs is the interpretation of them. This might not be too problematic when it comes to ranking legal websites but what of political arguments? The recent debate on Scottish Independence was characterised by how little in the way of concrete fact was advanced by either side. What would Google have to say about the veracity of claims relating to the Barnett formula, Trident, Oil Revenues or the division of national assets - all matters which were the subject of equally forcefully-made claims of fact by both sides? This is a digression, but it illustrates the difficulty Google may have in interpreting and discerning fact from opinion.
When it comes to law, Google lags when it comes to ‘knowledge’ and ‘facts’ – not even Donoghue v Stevenson has a knowledge graph, for instance, or even a crystal-clear ratio decidendi! This means that Google has little idea of what the case is, what it represents or its relationship to our legal system. When asked about ‘Scots law’ or ‘the UK legal system’ Google simply scrapes the definition from Wikipedia and hopes you go away. That said, it isn’t a huge leap to imagine that Google might become ‘aware’ of certain concrete legal facts (the triennium in PI cases across the UK, for instance) and rank more highly those sites containing this type of information.
What Google can, and does, represent in a knowledge graph is biographical information about prominent lawyers. The only potential downside to this, at least for high-profile criminal lawyers, is that their name is inextricably linked to that of their most prominent clients!
The impact on the legal sector
The most obvious way for Google to build its knowledge of the legal sector would be to link cases and legislation to the laws they espouse, then link that to the firms or practitioners involved. In this way, the more substantial and well-widely regarded a firm became in its field, the better it would rank in search. This ranking supremacy already happens to some extent, but it happens because of exogenous factors, not endogenous ones. In any event, this would just be another one of the myriad ways in which Google is facilitating the supermarketisation of law, prioritising the larger firms and squeezing out the high street.
In any event, the major barrier to such an approach is that much of this information is contained in ‘walled gardens’ such as Westlaw or LexisNexis to which Google’s bots have no access. Until Google enters the world of law with purpose (or they buy a third party who has developed detailed, Turing-test-worthy legal software capable of solving legal problems) then traditional content marketing, SEO and other online presence-building success drivers will continue to reign supreme.
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