Thursday, April 05, 2007

Where Did Everybody Go?


Looking at traffic trends on legal websites, there's a relatively consistent downward pattern. Even dominant sites like findlaw.com, nolo.com and lawyers.com are taking a serious hit. So what gives?

In recent months Google has seemed much more likely to produce pages from the Wikipedia in response to legal searches. I suspect that Wikipedia's "authority" ranking is leaching away traffic from legal speciality sites.

This, to me, represents a danger of current search engine algorithms. I will grant that some of their articles are very helpful, and some are suprisingly thorough. But with so much "authority" vested by search engines in the Wikipedia, their mediocre content, "stub" pages, and erroneous content can easily outrank professionally drafted and edited content from true authority sites.

4 comments:

  1. Of course this is only a "real" problem if the total number of people who made the leap from "free viewer" to "paying customer" is also "trending down" due to Wikipedia. After all, if it is only "free viewers" who are suffering . . . Oh, I'm sorry, were you talking about the impact of the "bad content" on the viewers not on the website owners . . . : )

    CWD

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  2. I'm more concerned with the viewer. Although I will note that many of the biggest law sites are for publishers who make their "best" content only available to paying customers, and are primarily motivated with driving sales.

    But I am more confident in the accuracy and relevance legal information in, for example, FindLaw than I am in the Wikipedia, even though much of FindLaw's consumer-oriented information is somewhat dated.

    I use law as an example, as that's the field I'm in, but similar trends seem to be occurring in other fields, with the Wikipedia sucking up traffic from sites which are legitimate authorities, but which can't compete with the search engine algorithm notion that Wikipedia is (or is close to being) the ultimate authority for everything.

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  3. I wonder how many of those hits were for people looking up things like 'the text of the Fourth Amendment' rather than seeking legal advice or news.

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  4. The first and third results for "fourth amendment" are from FindLaw and the Legal Information Institute, respectively. Both pages are substantially more comprehensive than the Wikipedia's content, which comes in at #2. Both are also derived from The Constitution of the United States of America: Analyis and Interpretation, published by the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. The fourth listing is from lectlaw.com (the 'Lectric Law Library", which put the content of various legal documents online about a decade or so ago and has done little since but ad ads. Then comes FindLaw again. Then a generic, unannotated reproduction of the Constitution from archives.gov, which presumably ranks that high because it is recognized as an "authority site".

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