The future of the search tool, a new world?

The future of the search tool, a new world?

Such is the power and prevalence of modern search tools that new parents are shunning the name “Alexa” for fear that it will appear a deranged homage to Amazon’s Alexa, or worse- alert Alexa to action every time they call their offspring by name. While it does seem a little loopy that search has invaded every orifice of modern living, this isn’t the first example of search tools’ occupying space in our daily lives. The verb “to google” was added to the dictionary in 2007 following pop-culture references in American TV show, Buffy. More pervasive however than fleeting 90’s stardom, the Google zeitgeist has enjoyed a long-term monopoly over our collective consciousness.

Thanks to the quality results returned by modern search tools, alongside the anonymity of the platform, Google quickly took on a more intimate role in our private lives. A quick search in Google for “Should I…” throws up a range of strange and intimate suggested search fields: from questions of marital harmony and changing career, to Clash lyrics and meditating on the merits of shaving your head, Google has bundled together all aspects of the human experience in a neat and highly intuitive algorithm. Whilst Google maintains that the verb To Google should be used only in relation to their products, the act of Googling has become a catch-all verb for our desire for answers. Interchangeable with “I’ll look that up”, “googling” sates our desire for fast results and a lexical proclivity for efficiency.

Google is often the first stop for every thought we daren’t vocalise, and a port in the storm for our most grave and bizarre worries. Despite beginning life as a search engine, designed to transport the user, Google’s search results create the destination itself. No longer relying on the user to know what they want, Google nourishes a speculative kind of curiosity; Google holds the keys to our most intimate self, playing surrogate doctor, agony aunt, therapist, financial advisor- before we’ve even asked the question.

Interesting? Definitely

Intrusive? Possibly.

The power of the user base should not be underestimated. Google has made no secret of their use of “people power”: those of us who use Google daily have empowered their multi-million business, and without us, Google would be impossible. But it’s only in recent years that many people have realised both the real role and the potential of the user base within the Search context. The user base is responsible for more than the explicit generation of keywords and phrases. They also generate a pervasive aura of implicit and inferred data waiting to be translated into insight, ads and answers. Google has worked hard to create, nurture and mine a user base that spans the globe. The legal profession needs something a little more modest but no less intelligent. Google has developed an ecosystem far beyond its search box to gather and understand the implicit and explicit encounters with its global user bases and that has created the ubiquitous “Did you mean…?” and the multiple pages of results based on millions of informed (and uninformed) users. And yet this is precisely why it struggles to be the solution for the legal profession. Much of the traditional legal search approach mirrors the early endeavours of global search; extremely sensitive and specific search criteria that is highly key word based and a gradual shift toward full search terms and sentences. The nature of legal work and the potential consequences mean staying too long on the “Did you mean…?” phase of search evolution is not a long-term option

Law firms often create their own communities and cultures prolific with experience, heritage and understanding. Even across law firms, that expertise and insight permeate everywhere to produce common understanding and standards. Plumb that into the global engines of Google or similar and the results are often diluted below usefulness, still leaving the profession relying on it with the lion’s share of the work to do.

The journey to understand and apply the implicit and explicit needs of the legal profession demands the evolution of its own ecosystem. One that mines experiences, interactions and expertise across the profession and helps move beyond the traditional “library” approach to search and knowledge. Certainly, as the world of Search has progressed, legal search tools have moved towards a B2C model rather than the B2B approach which had historically been favoured by legal search tools. In particular, this is highlighted in the user habits of the consumer and their subsequent demands on the platform. Increasingly, it’s a demand for more proactive search which embraces all of the informed nuances from the profession as well as its explicit engagements and the fluctuating demands of clients within ever more complex legal and regulatory environments. It’s a demand for search that doesn’t require that you know the precise question to ask, but instead understands the environment you operate in as a legal professional and starts to anticipate needs. After all, if your search tool requires a perfect sentence to find the perfect result, you will never know more than you do right now.

While Charlie Brooker would certainly have something to say about our blind trust of search tools, is our investment an unfortunate reality of furthering the future of search? It’s a worthy point of discussion: when we invested our lives in search tools, did we consider the emotional equity we were pouring into engines that were stoked by our interests, fears and questions? So when we consider the future of search, we must look to the role of the user, the role of legislation and regulation, and consider how we maintain the integrity and value of the next generation of intuitive search tools without allowing them to become intrusive and diluted.

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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.