by Margaret Hagan, originally published on Legal Design and Innovation
Our Better Legal Internet project at Stanford is all about one thing: making it easier for people to get free legal help, especially online.
People have life problems where legal aid might help
We know more people are looking on the Internet for answers to their life problems. This includes searches for ‘legal’ or ‘justiciable’ problems — in which a person might be able to use legal aid or courts to help them deal with it.
Some examples of legal life problems are:
- When your landlord is harassing you by stopping into your home unannounced, or when your landlord refuses to make repairs in your rental
- When you are getting threatening calls from someone trying to collect money they say you owe, for past-due medical bills
- When you want to see if you can get a past misdemeanor cleared from your record, so future employers or landlords won’t see it
- When you are worried about a partner’s abuse towards you and your kids, and you think you might need a restraining order to protect yourself
- When a contractor you hired to fix your roof isn’t doing the work he promised and isn’t returning your calls
These are situations where a person could try to talk with the other person to resolve the problem. Or they could ignore it, and hope it resolves on their own. Or, they could reach out to see if they have rights, protections, or options to use the legal system to get a resolution.
This third option, of using the legal system, ideally will help a person use the law to get the situation resolved with a good social outcome — stopping bad landlord behavior, stopping the debt collector harassment, clearing your record, protecting you from harassment, and holding a contractor accountable.
Legal Aid websites aren’t showing up on search
Every area of the US has at least one legal aid group or court services center to help people with these civil justice problems, and they do so for free. And these legal aid groups and court centers all have websites to help people connect with them.
But the problem is…
When people search online for problems like the ones above, many don’t see the legal aid or court websites. Our Lab has been auditing what Google shows when people search for queries around eviction, domestic violence, debt collection, and contractor fraud. (We’ll be publishing these audits soon. Stay tuned!)
What shows up most often are commercial websites, not public interest ones. And when there are .org and .gov sites showing up, they are mainly national sites — not local legal aid or court websites. Rarely are people being shown their local, free legal help groups.
So then the question is: how do we help improve the search placement of legal aid groups & court self-help centers? How do we increase the likelihood that people will find these free, non-profit services online?
Schema.org Markup as a way to improve public interest SEO
SEO (or, Search Engine Optimization) may be a hot topic in commercial websites, but not necessarily among government and nonprofit agencies. SEO is a group of ever-evolving techniques to get a site’s pages to place higher on Google, Bing, Siri, Duck Duck Go, and other searches.
Some classic SEO techniques include having other reputable sites link to yours, having content that matches keywords people are searching for, and making one’s site mobile-friendly and fast-loading. Search engine algorithms will likely give more authority to your site when you use these SEO techniques.
Our group was interested in one particular, newer technique: Schema.org markup.
What is Schema markup and why should legal help sites care?
Schema.org markup is code to put on your website’s backend, which tells search engines important information about who they should show your website to. It’s a way any website can better inform Google, Apple, Bing, Yandex, or Duck Duck Go what content they have, and what kinds of searchers to send them.
The Schema.org community is a non-profit group (founded originally by leading search engine companies, to improve how structured data is provided and used by search engines’ crawlers). Schema.org defines the various terms and structures that organizations can use to mark up their websites. The markup represents information about some key areas that apply to legal aid groups and courts:
- Organizational Details: Who your organization is, and what makes you authoritative on certain topics
- Issue Areas: What kinds of problems and questions you can help people with
- Jurisdictions: What jurisdictions and geographic areas you serve
- Demographic Groups: What specific demographics of people you serve
- Services and Events: What specific hotlines, intake channels, clinics, and other events you offer
Legal help websites can use the standard Schema.org markup code to represent this information in ways that search engines can understand automatically. This markup code should improve how often a website is shown to people asking about legal issues, in target jurisdictions and demographics.
Our team worked with legal aid groups, legal technologists, and community members from around the country to develop a protocol of how legal aid groups and courts can use Schema.org markup on their websites. This is important because Schema.org itself has thousands of terms — and it can be very overwhelming to decide how to represent an organization and its services. Our protocol provides a standard for how to do this.
Our proposal draws from other civic and government service providers’ use of Schema.org. For example, the W3C group has a CivicServices schema plan (that integrates a proposal from the Google.org Civic team), the UK government’s Gov.UK site has a Schema.org plan, and the Dept. of Veterans Affairs had a Schema.org plan.
You can see our existing example Legal Help Schema.org markup for various legal aid groups at our Github repository here. We will be publishing a tool soon for groups to create their own markup easily. Stay tuned!
Getting literate in Legal Help Schema
Okay, so let’s say that you’re interested in what this markup is, and if it can benefit your organization + users.
The next step is understanding just enough about it, that you can work with your website administrators to get it going on your site.
That means it’s good to get conversant in structured data on the web. You don’t have to become an expert technologist or SEO master — but you’ll understand more about how the Internet and search work, especially to connect to your audience better.
Legal Help Schema is a standard set of tags that can be applied to content on a website. Like html, it will tell applications how to understand the natural-language text — making it clear what this text means not just to humans but also to machines.
Schema tags can be used by anyone (with basic technical skills) can make their existing website content more easily searchable and understandable to other applications — in particular search engines. It integrates into the wider Schema.org standards, of how to markup site content, so that search engines can discover and display it more effectively.
Legal Help Schema is being created specifically for the types of content on legal help sites. It tags up particular legal issues; what jurisdictions the information concerns; what types of procedures it refers to; and what service provider contact info, fees involved, and eligibility criteria apply.
The Schema tags can be used by courts, self-help centers, non-profits, clinics, and other online legal help providers to improve the machine readability of the content on their site.
Our team has been integrating legal help categories from the LIST taxonomy Database, to tag legal help topics and materials online. We can use Schema.org markup to tell the search engines what legal issues are being talked about, by referring to LIST’s standard list of issue codes.
Not only should court and official material appear higher in the search results, but it may also be presented in ‘smart snippets’ with excerpts and priority provided to people directly on the search results page. The tagging will tell how search engines can best display legal help information, using smart snippets, excerpted bullet-point lists, form and fee previews, contact information for service providers, and other priority displays.
Also, it will ensure that users are directed to the correct jurisdiction of material.
Legal Help Schema takes inspiration from medical and healthcare information providers, who created a Schema.org markup tag set for their content. Read more about the Medical Markup effort here at Schema.org.
Just as the Mayo Clinic and other medical experts created a standard Markup language for their online content, our team is working with Schema.org to create a standard markup schema for legal procedures and service information.
We’re hoping that in the next few years, we’ll have great legal help results showing up on search engines, and being spoken back by Siri or Alexa. Please be in touch if your org wants to work on this with us!