Search Engine Results as Evidence

Can you / should you / do you rely on the product of search engines as evidence in civil or criminal matters? Do you base legal advice on what you find on search engines, or on the use made of them?

A recent article in Canadian Lawyer canvasses some of the possibilities.

The Ontario Superior Court held that one could not establish facts by showing how often certain terms were used in Google searches. That was for the purpose of the certification of a class action.

However, showing previous use or actual use of trade marks can be done by searching for them. A number of judicial decisions have confirmed that.

Is the law of evidence clear enough on this kind of issue? Is the Superior Court decision right, in your view (given that the judge who decided it is now Chief Justice of Ontario)? How firmly does one need to establish ‘facts’, or is the nature of a ‘fact’ different depending on your legal purpose for using it?

What – if anything – should be done?


  1. From paragraph 54 of the judgment:

    “In a second report, Mr. Trumper reviewed Mr. Joffe’s report. He describes the report as meaningless, inaccurate and misleading, based on false assumptions and incorrect data. He says that Mr. Joffe has misused statistical models and has failed to apply logical reasoning. Among other criticisms, Mr. Trumper points out that the number of initial “hits” identified on a Google search is not reflective of the number of times the results actually appear on web pages and still less reflective of the underlying content of the particular pages. Moreover, the fact that there are a number of “hits” in response to the query “Canon Digital Camera Error” does not tell one anything about the underlying truth of the assertions made on the web pages.”

    What should be done: bring better evidence

  2. Keyword searching by search engines is unreliable. See this article: Victoria L. Lemieux and Jason R. Baron, “Overcoming the Digital Tsunami in e-Discovery: is Visual Analysis the Answer?” (2012), 9 Canadian Journal of Law and Technology 33 at 35:

    Indeed, we know that current e-discovery search methods are not sufficient to overcome the digital tsunami: the most common methods currently used in e-discovery – keyword searching and linear review – are increasingly ineffective for the massive volumes of data that must be sifted through for each case. There have been a number of studies highlighting the limitations of existing search and retrieval techniques. In one study lawyers overestimated the effectiveness of their keyword-based search strategies by as much as 55%. Dabney (1986), Bing (1987) and Schweighofer (1999) all provide in-depth reviews of the limitations of full text searching for legal documentation. More recently, a multi-year study evaluating the efficacy of various search methods known as the “TREC Legal Track” demonstrated that traditional Boolean search methods failed to find up to 78% of relevant documents that other automated search methods accounted for (Tomlinson et al, 2008). … .

    All of these prior reports and studies are in line with results of an online survey of legal and technical professionals in the UK and two roundtable discussions on e-discovery conducted by PwC [PricewaterhouseCoopers] indicating that keyword searching is increasingly untenable. Panelists noted the difficulties of choosing key words, reporting that ‘[e]ven if you have a brilliant, absolutely focussed search, you are still going to end up with too many documents to review and within those there will still be a very large proportion of irrelevant material.’ Data volumes are quickly becoming such that even with the best keyword search terms and an army of reviewers, it could still take months or years to sift through all the data and there would still be no guarantee of satisfactory results. New approaches are therefore very much needed.” [footnotes omitted]

    Therefore, is the efficacy of “predictive coding” and other “technology assisted review” devices, used to reduce the cost of the “review” stage of electronic discovery, undermined by their reliance on keyword searching strategies?

    “Predictive coding” is a document review technology that allows computers to predict particular document classifications (such as “responsive” or “privileged”) based upon coding decisions made by those knowledgeable as to the subject matter. In the context of electronic discovery, this technology can find key documents faster and with fewer human reviewers, thereby saving much time to conduct document review for finding relevant and potentially privileged documents.

    A detailed description of the use of predictive coding devices is found in, Dynamo Holdings Ltd. Partnership v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (U.S. Tax Court, Nos. 2685-11, 8393-12, Sept. 17, 2014); online: (click “available here” at the bottom of the page). And it is mentioned in, L’Abbé v. Allen-Vanguard Corp. 2011 ONSC 7575, [2011] O.J. No. 5982, at para. 23: “Various electronic discovery solutions are available including software solutions such as predictive coding and auditing procedures such as sampling.” But whether predictive coding can make common, ordinary size litigation affordable to a majority of the population is yet to be proved. And given the substantial criticism of keyword searching, is predictive coding’s efficacy undermined by relying upon keyword search strategies?