I recently searched for “ecfr” on Google and the first result was ecfr.io, as you can see in the screenshot from my iPhone. I perused the site for a few minutes thinking, “Oh, they have revamped this site a lot.”
I then noticed the “.io” top level domain (TLD) and I quickly realized that ecfr.io is not a government website because U.S. government sites use the .gov TLD.1,2
As I mentioned in a post yesterday, I asked the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO) about the website. They confirmed that ecfr.io is not a United States government website.
The top level domain
.io allows organizations to register a domain name anonymously. Thus, you cannot find out who owns the website through usual methods such as searching the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) “whois” database.
Why Does this Non-Government Website Appear in Search Engine Results So Often?
When people search for “cfr”, “ecfr”, “code of federal regulations”, or for specific citations to the CFR, e.g., “38 CFR”, the ecfr.io site often appears before the ecfr.gov website.
There are probably a few reasons ecfr.io‘s success, including:
(1) For mobile devices, the ecfr.io site loads faster–and receives bonus points from Google–because it uses Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), a website building process designed to load pages faster with crisp, clear text and images, in an easy-to-read style.
(2) In general, the government site (www.ecfr.gov) is not optimized for the search engines. For example, ecfr.gov does not have an accessible description for the website which is why you see “No information is available for this page. Learn why.”
(3) Although the quality of website content remains the most important variable, search engine optimization (SEO) can make a big difference, particularly when two sites have almost identical content as is the case with ecfr.io and ecfr.gov.
For example, even though ecfr.io went online on 18 Jan 2018, it has a relatively high Alexa rank (a measure of unique website visits) and it receives 35% of the search engine traffic when people search for “ecfr”, which is remarkable considering that the government’s electronic Code of Federal Regulations site (ecfr.gov) went online in October 2012.3
(4) The ecfr.io site has also garnered a good number of “backlinks”, i.e., other websites which link to ecfr.io, something that increases its position on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
In fact, if you search for “ecfr.io” (with the quotes), you will find a number of books, documents, and websites–many of them state and federal agencies–which link to ecfr.io.
Since the Code of Federal Regulations is in the public domain in the United States, it might be perfectly legal for an anonymous company to copy ecfr.gov and create its own website. I simply do not know if it’s legal or not.
That’s why I wrote these two blog posts, i.e., if it is not illegal, I would like more people to know about this mysterious copy site so that they can visit the genuine, legitimate United States government website at https://www.ecfr.gov/ .
1. DᴏᴛGᴏᴠ Dᴏᴍᴀɪɴ Rᴇɢɪsᴛʀʏ Sᴇʀᴠɪᴄᴇ, Oғғɪᴄᴇ ᴏғ Gᴏᴠᴇʀɴᴍᴇɴᴛ-Wɪᴅᴇ Pᴏʟɪᴄʏ, Gᴇɴᴇʀᴀʟ Sᴇʀᴠɪᴄᴇs Aᴅᴍɪɴɪsᴛʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, Domain Requirements, https://home.dotgov.gov/registration/requirements/ (last visited July 26, 2018) (“The [.gov] domain hosts only official, government sites at the federal, state, and local levels, including federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaskan Native groups, known as Native Sovereign Nations (NSNs).”).
2. 41 C.F.R. §102-173.5 to §102-173.95
3. These statistics come from SEO Quake, a browser extension (plugin) that provides detailed information about websites. SEO Quake is a product of SEMrush, a leading search engine optimization and marketing company.