Should Lexis and Westlaw License Google PageRank?

Cite this Article
Keith Sharfman, Should Lexis and Westlaw License Google PageRank?, Truth on the Market (January 22, 2006),

A few days ago, I proposed an analogy between blog entries and law review articles. I noted that searching the blogosphere is similar to searching the law review databases in Lexis or Westlaw in the sense that search results of both types are largely content-driven rather than reputation-based. Only relevant content, not past popularity, can generate search hits.

There is, however, a distinction not discussed in my earlier post that is worth mentioning. As Dave Hoffman points out, searching the blogosphere is not entirely a reputation-neutral process because Google PageRank makes reputation a factor in ranking search hits. Of course, pages will not come up in a search if they don’t contain information matching the search query. But where (as is usually the case) a search locates many pages containing search-relevant content, PageRank determines each page’s relative importance on the basis of reputational factors such as past traffic and links to other pages. A page’s past can thus affect its future and in this sense blogosphere searching is to some extent path dependent in a way that law review searching is not.

Nonetheless, I remain convinced that blogosphere searching is largely content-driven, because PageRank apparently ranks individual blog posts rather than the blogs on which the posts appear. That is, PageRank is page-based, not site-based. A “new blog� posting that gets linked to and visited many times will receive a higher rank from PageRank than a seldom visited posting that appears on what is overall a better established and historically more popular blog. So at the end of the day, content is king, a reality that PageRank reinforces rather than undermines.

An interesting question that emerges from all of this is why Lexis (which currently ranks law review search hits alphabetically), Westlaw (which currently ranks law review search hits chronologically), and other electronically searchable databases don’t either license Google’s PageRank technology or homebrew a similar ranking mechanism if Google refuses to license it or demands too high a price. Perhaps efforts to do this are already underway, but certainly they should be. In any case, I predict (as Tom Smith implicitly suggests) that in the not too distant future, relevance ranking will be a universally available feature of electronic database searching.