The Legal Information Institute welcomed more than 42 million unique visitors to our website in 2021. We were surprised to see more visitors on our website in 2021 than in 2020 in light of the extraordinary confluence of current events and politics in 2020 – a presidential election, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement all come instantly to mind. But as we welcome 2022, there is no doubt that close to 3.5 million more visitors viewed over 10.5 million more pages on law.cornell.edu in 2021 than in 2022.
As we watched traffic each month in 2021 outperform what we’d ever seen before, we looked for explanations. While bringing in more traffic is not necessarily a goal in-and-of itself, more visitors usually means we are doing something right, and fewer visitors often means there is room for improvements. Also, we are always pleased to hear from readers who find our straightforward approach to presenting legal information to be a welcome change from websites driven by a particular ideological, political, or commercial agenda. We like to think that more traffic to our website means that more people are finding the information they need to do their jobs or live their lives without the biases that sometimes shade how that information is presented elsewhere online.
In the end, we see three key reasons why more people used law.cornell.edu in 2021 than ever before.
Our ability to bring the law to the public has always depended on our capacity to ingest, process, and present large collections of poorly organized and inconsistently formatted government information. The United States Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, and even our publication of Supreme Court opinions are all good examples. In 2021, we moved our focus for the first time to an even larger challenge, the regulations of all 50 states.
The background: almost as soon as we began publishing the full text of the Code of Federal Regulations ten years ago, we began to lament having to leave off at the federal level. Questions like “when is hunting season?”, “what is the scope of care in assisted living facilities?”, or “how is local government involved in liquor licensing?” all reach the state level. So when Public.Resource.Org brought us the opportunity to work on all 50 states simultaneously, we jumped at the chance. Our newest technologist, Matt Carey, has brought his extensive domain knowledge to bear on new feature development; and, this semester we worked with a group of M.Eng. students to explore the data with a focus on topical retrieval and definition extraction.
Though this project is far from complete, we’ve already welcomed more than a half million visitors who viewed more than 2 million pages on our website that simply did not exist in 2020 – ranging in subject matter from standards for prompt, fair and equitable insurance settlements in California, to religious exemptions from school immunization requirements in New Jersey, to the organization of the Alabama Athletes Regulatory Commission. Our move from beyond the federal government and into state government information in 2021 was an obvious source of additional readership in 2021.
In 2020, we began a program of hiring Cornell law students displaced from other employment by the pandemic. Our main task for many of those students was to review and improve upon thousands of definitions we had ingested into Wex almost a decade prior. We made a decent start, but we also realized that we’d need to add staff capacity and expertise if we wanted Wex to realize its full potential as a definitive collection of explanations about important legal concepts and terminology. So, in early 2021 we hired Nichole McCarthy as our first Original Content Collections Manager.
Nichole embraced the Definitions Project with verve. Her team of Cornell students has now renovated or created close to 3,000 definitions. This new content is not only longer and more complete than what it replaces, it is more comprehensively and rigorously linked to our other collections and other Free Law sources from around the internet.
And folks have noticed. Over 800,000 more people read a Wex entry in 2021 than 2020. In all, they visited close to 3.5 million additional pages of Wex articles than they had last year. Emboldened by this massive increase, we are planning big things for WEX.
Search Engine Optimization
Since we don’t advertise our content, you may be wondering how people find us – especially for the first time. The answer, almost always, is that they come to us from a search engine like Google or Bing. You’ve probably noticed that our pages rank well whenever you use a search engine to look up, for example, a statute, a regulation, or an unfamiliar legal term. That is not a coincidence. We work hard to ensure that our content bears all the hallmarks of quality that the search engines use to assess whether information on a website appears reliable and current.
We believe that the two projects we’ve detailed above helped us improve our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) beyond our routine efforts. A massive new collection like State Regulations, updated regularly and driving millions of new pageviews to content not otherwise available for free on the internet, cannot help but get the attention of the search engine algorithms. All of the updates to Wex, especially all of the new hyperlinks to other quality quality pages on our site and other reputable sites, is also doubtless a factor in boosting SEO.
Moving up in the search results even a place or two can have a big impact on traffic – especially when it means moving into the first slot. We see this as the main reason why some of “steadier” collections such as the Federal Rules and the Code of Federal Regulations each welcomed around 350,000 more users in 2021 than in 2020.
Of course, 2021 wasn’t just about record traffic to our website. We made real progress on several projects that will eventually result in new collections or new features in current collections. Whether or not they take us to new heights of website traffic, each will in its own way improve the public’s access to legal information online. We look forward to telling you all about them in future communications.