Finding Government Documents on the Internet

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USA.gov (formerly FirstGov.gov)

USA.gov (http://www.usa.gov) is the federal government’s document search portal. USA.gov searches millions of Web pages from all levels of the United States government: federal, state, local, tribal, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. (Although results occasionally bring back court opinions, this is not the right site to search for them. There are better, free options, such as Google Scholar and if your bar subscribes to them, Casemaker and Fastcase.)

In addition to offering keyword searching, USA.gov offers the ability to browse by selecting one of the five tabs listed below the search box on USA.gov’s home page: Services, Blog, Topics, Government Agencies, and Contact Government. Once you select one of these tabs, such as the Government Agencies tab, for example, a drop-down menu appears where more links are revealed.

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When you don't know an agency's URL, click A-Z List of Agencies beneath POPULAR TOPICS on the right-hand side of USA.gov's home page (http://www.usa.gov/). USA.gov’s internal search engine (the search box on USA.gov’s home page) is powered by Bing. You can use the search box to keyword or phrase search government documents. To learn how to search USA.gov with Boolean connectors, use this URL: http://onlinehelp.microsoft.com/en-us/bing/ff808438.aspx. We will provide a brief Bing/USA.gov tutorial.

Just like Google, Bing/USA.gov uses Boolean connectors to link keywords and phrases and their default Boolean connector is AND. Leaving a space between words automatically connects your keywords/phrases with the AND Boolean connector so there is no need to type the word AND. And, just like Google, Bing/USA.gov offers phrase searching if you surround your phrase within quotation marks.

Bing/USA.gov treats the Boolean connector OR differently than Google in one instance only: when you are combining your OR search with other Boolean connectors in a search. For example, to search for the phrase "homeland security" and the keywords nevada OR oregon, Bing requires you to enclose your OR terms in parentheses (Google does not). Your search would look like this:

"homeland security" (nevada OR oregon)

If you are only searching the keywords nevada OR Oregon, your Bing/USA.gov search would be the same as a Google search and would look like this:

nevada OR oregon

The OR Boolean connector must be upper case at Bing/USA.gov and Google. If you are excluding a word at Bing/USA.gov, you would place a minus sign before the word without any space, just as you would at Google. One difference is that Bing/USA.gov also recognizes the Boolean connector NOT, but it must be in upper case. Google does not recognize NOT. So to search at Bing/USA.gov for the phrase "homeland security" and the keywords nevada NOT oregon, your search would look like either one of these examples:

"homeland security" nevada -oregon

"homeland security" nevada NOT oregon

The link to the Advanced Search was taken off the home page a number of years ago, much to our disappointment, and it is now only visible after you run your search and receive results or it can be reached directly at http://search.usa.gov/search/advanced. Once you reach the Advanced Search at Search.USA.gov, you will then be able to construct your search in the following ways:

  • Enter keywords into the following search boxes:
    • All of these words
    • This exact phrase
    • Any of these words
    • None of these words
  • Select the File Type drop-down menu to limit search results to the following formats:
    • PDF
    • Excel
    • PowerPoint
    • Word
    • Text

USA.gov's advanced search menu used to allow you to limit your search results to documents from a particular site (or sites) or exclude results from a particular site (or sites) but they removed that feature from the menu. However, you can still create that search by entering the site "instruction" into the simple search box along with your keywords. For instance, if you know that you are looking for a document from the National Highway Transportation & Safety Administration, you can limit your results to that particular government agency by entering site:nhtsa.dot.gov into the search box. You can add more than one URL by separating them by a space. Conversely, you can exclude a site or sites by entering -site:nhtsa.dot.gov into the search box.

Using Google to Search for Government Documents

You can also use Google to search for government documents by entering keywords and phrases into the search box on the home page or into Google’s advanced search menu to create a more sophisticated/targeted search (http://www.google.com/advanced_search). On the Advanced Search page, you can limit a search to a specific site by entering the URL into the "Search within a Site or Domain" and limit to a specific file type, just as you can at USA.gov described above.

Justia's Legal Web Search

To limit search results to law related websites, try Justia's Legal Web Search at http://www.justia.com. They offer an excellent search of law-related Web sites but it is not that easy to find from Justia’s home page. You can access it directly by visiting http://www.justia.com/search.py and click the "Legal Web" button at the top of the page before entering your keywords into the search box.

This article was adapted from the book, “Internet Legal Research on a Budget” by Carole Levitt and Judy Davis (ABA LPD 2014). Reprinted with permission of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

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