Column

The Missing Link?


For many members of the general public seeking to understand the law, Wikipedia is the first and perhaps only stop. Others may go further and eventually come across equally accessible but considerably more reliable sources – online or otherwise. In any event, there is often a gulf between where the general public goes to understand the law and where the understanding is available.

Based on observations of a little experiment in contextual-linking, small efforts can go a long way toward bridging that gulf.

Contextual-linking is different from promotional or advisory linking such as is found on the “links” page of so many websites. I’m using the term here to describe links that pertain directly to the subject matter of the text in which the link appears. As I describe below, small efforts in building contextual links can redirect an engaged and curious person to valuable material.

There is no discovery or originality in my observation. In fact, I’m pretty sure Google and others are on to the idea. Innovation, if any, would come in the application of the concept to public legal education and, hopefully, in the scale of that effort.

A wee Wikipedia experiment

On December 23rd, I went to the Wikipedia article for the Criminal Code of Canada and in the “structure” section of the page where a prior editor had helpfully listed title of each of the 34 major parts of the Code, I embedded a hyperlink pointing back to the appearance of that part in CanLII’s version of the Code.

It took about 15 minutes and had an astonishing impact.

December page view referrals from that article to CanLII were the highest of any month in 2011 of any of the over 2000 Wikipedia articles referring web traffic to CanLII. Relative to the Criminal Code article itself, December CanLII page view referrals:

  • were three times greater than the prior most active month;
  • equalled 45% of the Jan-November 2011 total; and
  • represented over 1/3 of the 2011 total.

The momentum continued in 2012. Barely six days into the new year, total page view referrals from the Wikipedia Criminal Code article exceeded the December total and now demonstrate a daily pace that just prior to the experiment came only monthly.

In an attempt to confirm that the results were attributable to my experiment and not some external event, I examined overall referrals stats for other popular and related Wikipedia articles and saw no similar spikes or other evidence of general increases. To the contrary, as the Wikipedia site stats for article in fact showed lower than average visits since the time of my edits, including no visits at all on December 24th and 25th.

As a further step to confirm the impact of adding the links, late in the afternoon on January 2nd, I added the same sort of links to a different article (this time it only took 3 minutes) and observed an immediate six-fold increase in daily page views and attainment of the 2011 monthly average within 4 days.

Because CanLII is first and foremost a research tool, page views are primarily generated by users already on the site as they carry out their research and growth is therefore dependent on user satisfaction with the resource. Page views generated by referring links represent a tiny percentage of the total (typically in the 2% range) although the actual number of external referring sources is fairly large.

82 637 different external web pages sent traffic to CanLII in 2011 resulting in nearly 1.7M page views. Linked traffic from Wikipedia articles accounted for approximately 50 000 (or approximately 3%) of those page views. So while sizeable, increased traffic from Wikipedia will not move the needle much relative to CanLII’s total page views (~80M in 2011), but I do hope people who discover CanLII as a result of a Wikipedia link will find some benefit.

Building bridges to understanding link-by-link

I will never know if the 18 minutes I spent adding legislative hyperlinks to existing Wikipedia text made any difference to the people who clicked on them. The statutes are no less impenetrable; the justice system is no less imposing. But I take some satisfaction in knowing that the engaged and curious people who clicked those links have accessed reliable information and may be one step closer to understanding the law. More to the point, I am now fascinated by the possibility of taking this idea further and enhancing Wikipedia text with links to not just primary law, but to secondary and explanatory sources where actual understanding is delivered through useful and accurate information.

Lawyers, assiduous linkers and charmingly pedantic* in their desire to validate their every utterance by reference to supporting authority for every point made, are natural bridge builders in this context. Imagine the net benefit to those who will continue to make Wikipedia their first stop in knowing the law if there were hundreds more bridges available that could lead people out of the morass? Imagine how easy it would be to do this if hundreds of legal professionals made a one-time, 15 minute effort to improve a Wikipedia law-related article by adding a contextual link to a reliable and freely accessible legal information resource?

If you take up the challenge, be sure to take a glance at Wikipedia’s style guide and its rules for incorporating external links lest a transgression come to the attention of a zealous Wikipedian who comes in and erases your footprints after you leave. [I approached this in reverse and only learned of the rules after making edits. As it happens, my edits are possibly offside the rules but have yet to be undone].

Looking for a redirection target? 

In addition to legislative and case links, how about linking to a relevant article found on a government or PLEI (public legal education and information) website? [See my November column for a discussion of the PLEIs.] For general legal terminology and understanding and you might consider an article from the irreverent but thorough Duhaime.org. For criminal law you might consider an article from the site maintained by B.C. crown counsel Henry Waldock (though targeted to police officers as a primary audience, the text is written in plain language and very easy to follow). Maybe you know of other in-depth legal issues websites maintained by lawyers, professors or others?

Why should we care?

Though it probably doesn’t need to be said, I will say it anyway. As governments and the PLEIs well understand, access to legal information and understanding is a critical piece in the broader societal goal of ensuring citizen access to justice. This goal should be shared by all legal professionals.

There is no denying Wikipedia’s drawing power. If readers of this article set aside 15 minutes to add to a Wikipedia article a few of the missing links could bring its legally-inclined visitors closer to their objective of understanding the subject of their search, we could make a small advance toward our shared goal of ensuring access to justice.

Choose any article you like or drop me a line if you want suggestions from among the 2 237 Wikipedia articles already driving clicks from people trying to learn more about the law.

______________________

*As just such a pedantic lawyer, I humbly present my new favourite joke (sourced from too many places to mention): ” A pedant walks into a bar. Well, it’s a restaurant with a bar. Technically it’s a brewpub since it has an onsite microbrewery …”

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Comments

  1. Very interesting ideas here, Colin. And I’m amazed to hear the impact 15 minutes of linking effort had on CanLII’s traffic. At Courthouse Libraries BC we have some rather esotheric tidbits of info in our Asked and Answered database. I wonder, where would you propose linking to these mostly very specific comments about BC law and practice from Wikipedia?

  2. Hi Nate,

    Thanks for the feedback and the question.

    I submitted this article nearly 4 weeks ahead of publication, so I was a little nervous the momentum would subside and that my claims would prove unfounded. It turns out there was no cause to worry as the click-through activity continues to this day at the pace established in late December / early January. Largely as a result of the experiment, as well as some organic growth, total CanLII page views for January 2012 attributable to Wikipedia click-throughs were 40% higher than in January 2011.

    With respect to pairing up Wikipedia articles with Courthouse Libraries BC content, I see several possibilities, most notably in respect of family law issues (e.g., your materials on annulments, wills, spousal support, etc…).

    To assist you and others who might be interested in making connections, I’ve posted to my mostly dormant blog a partial and alphabetized list of Wikipedia links that drive traffic to CanLII. In total, CanLII received incoming traffic from 959 Wikipedia articles in January. I’ve stripped out the non-English articles as well as the mobile pages and some duplicates, but I suspect that among the 700+ that remain on the list you will some logical pairings on which to conduct your own experiments in contextual linking.

    If you try it, be sure to let us know if you had any success!

    Colin

  3. Ooops. Quick correction on my math. Total CanLII pageviews attributable to click-throughs from all Wikipedia articles were actually 80% higher in Jan/12 versus Jan/11.

  4. Thanks Colin. I envision this could be a very useful exercise not just for Courthouse Libraries BC’s website but for our sister site Clicklaw.
    While PLEIs develop practical info-finding tools for web-based legal info resources and cross-over resources (like PDFs of print-based handouts and guides)–and while organizations like CanLII and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada intervene at the highest levels to ensure we maintain the ability to provide free access to a comprehensive collection of legal materials–it’s important to be creative and pragmatic in clearing new paths to these resources. I suppose in Wikipedia’s case, that means building off-ramps from the autobahn.
    Comprehensive access for comprehensive collections of legal info!