Britannica Boss Trash Talks Google And Wikipedia

from the focus-on-your-own-product dept

A few months back, we ran an an interview with Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. That interview was in response to an earlier post, done by Tim Lee, where Tim suggested Britannica should basically just give up. Cauz talked up some new initiatives under way, and now the company has announced a more Wikipedia-like version. Users can submit changes, which are then reviewed by an editor before inclusion. Apparently, they’re focused on ensuring at most a 20 minute turnaround. If so, that’s impressive. However, what struck me is that Cauz seems unhealthily focused on both Wikipedia and Google.

He seems to be trash talking both of them, specifically scolding Google for linking to Wikipedia so high up so often — and then complaining (yet again) that Wikipedia’s quality isn’t really that good. I’m not sure I agree on either point (and, to be honest, there are times I do Google searches and am upset when the top result is not to a Wikipedia entry — as I’ve come to almost expect it now), but even if we grant Cauz the premise that (a) Wikipedia has quality problems and (b) Google favors Wikipedia too much, it still seems slightly worrisome that Cauz is even trash talking about those issues. Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to ignore either company, but a good CEO focuses on his company’s own strengths in interviews and avoids trashing the competition most of the time. Whenever I see execs doing the opposite, it almost screams out insecurity about the company’s own products and their quality. Yes, Britannica has an uphill road to climb after not recognizing the transformative nature and the threat posed by Wikipedia — but the way to do it isn’t by tearing Wikipedia down even as Britannica builds up its own product, but by focusing on the quality of that product.

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: britannica, google

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Britannica Boss Trash Talks Google And Wikipedia”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
pawn says:

Here’s a quote from Cauz (from Wiki): “Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School.”

Again, even if this were true, it misses the point. American Idol provides entertainment to millions. Juilliard may be a great school, but outside of a small circle, who cares?

If Juilliard were attempting to compete with American Idol for cultural relevancy, they are sofa king crushed.

PS: I also get annoyed when I don’t get a wikipedia entry on google’s first page.

PSS: Isn’t this another example of how the advantage of being first and executing properly wins without the need for IP law. Wiki can compete with other online, user-edited encyclopedias without needing a lawsuit.

Roger (user link) says:

When CEOs miss the point

Hey Mike,

Great post!

You’re right that Britannica’s CEO is missing the point. Why attack the competition when brand awareness is the main problem, not to mention user experience on the Britannica Web site. That needs to be at least up to par with the competition before the bashing can be valid.

That said, it’s good to question the dominance of the two entities that dominate search and knowledge on the Web. It’s true (IMHO) that Wikipedia’s search function sucks, and if it was better, users would not be so reliant on Google. Moreover, academicians decry the brevity (if not accuracy) of Wikipedia’s articles, noting that students are reluctant to go to the original research journals or books, and miss the depth of gumboot library work.

The basic flaw of Wikipedia, however, is that it’s authors are anonymous. You do not know who wrote a piece, you cannot check the credentials of authors, you might have trouble maintaining dialog. That is the sell for Britannica. I would always rely more on an article whose author I knew and trusted.

SteveD says:

The generation gap

All the Britanica have going for them is the older generations whom still mistrust the internet. Most of the arguments over relative accuracy seem to hinge around the generation gap, something that Britanica won’t be able to rely on forever.

*Waits patiently for a Britanica PR rep to turn up in the comments and point out how inaccurate Wikipedia is.*

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The generation gap

All the Britanica have going for them is the older generations whom still mistrust the internet. Most of the arguments over relative accuracy seem to hinge around the generation gap, something that Britanica won’t be able to rely on forever.

That is very true for the most part. People can stand back and point out flaws in Wikipedia, but I have several encyclopedias on my shelf which are full of highlighter for things that I have found to be inaccurate or flat out wrong. The difference is that Wikipedia is fluid. Generally if I find an error and send off an email to someone, it’s fixed very quickly. It could take years and the cost of a new encyclopedia to correct the prior method.

In a lot of ways this whole issue reminds me of the RIAA, with the exception that Britanica can’t sue over facts as easily. Britanica has had a long run, where they were able to make a fortune by doing very little, and exploiting a primitive distribution method. Unfortunately, they have fallen behind and are now paying the consequences.

yogi says:

Who needs accuracy?

I don’t care if Wikipedia is not 100% accurate in every detail. I just want to know, quickly, what something like the “prefrontal cortex” is so I can get on with my life.

When I need accurate and reliable I would probably go somewhere else. Wikipedia is like an almanac of everything for me and in such a disconnected world it is extremely useful.

Briitanica doesn’t need to be that almanac, it should be the accurate reliable encyclopedia.

But it can use part of its materials and open them up to the public as a Wiki clone so that people will get to know and respect the brittanica brand instead of wikipedia.Visiting their page now is like getting a smackdown – not the best publicity, I’m sure.

When people get used to using and respecting the authority of Brittanica it can then sell its higher end service as well as other services such as answering questions on any subject and finding information – promptly and reliably.

Mike, do I get a pat on the head …?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

A Scholarly Assessment of Wikipedia.

Here’s a discussion a bunch of us historians had about Wikipedia about three years ago. Note the link to the previous round of discussion, four years ago.

To: Lonnie E. Holder:

At the time the Nature study came out, I corresponded with the editors of Nature. I pointed out that there were all kinds of advanced technical terms which did not seem to appear in Britannica at all, whereas Wikipedia had fairly good answers for them. The editors replied that, yes, they were aware of this, and they had indeed been forced to eliminate terms which Britannica did not cover, in order to make it possible to compare entries (Jo Marchant, Nature, E-mail, 12/22/2005).

Jen says:

and, to be honest, there are times I do Google searches and am upset when the top result is not to a Wikipedia entry — as I’ve come to almost expect it now

When I’m trying to find information on a particular subject, the first thing I do is in my address bar type “wiki frontal cortex”. Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky takes me to that particular wiki article if it is spelled correctly, else it takes you to a standard Google search page usually with a suggestion for the article I am looking for.

TX CHL Instructor (profile) says:

16 years ago...

16 years ago, I had a conversation with a Britannica salesman, and I asked if I could get Britannica on a set of CDs (that was pretty new technology back then, but it was already obvious to me it was the way things were going). He replied along the lines that Britannica didn’t need to do any of that ‘newfangled’ computer stuff; they were the world leader, period, and there was no way that a CD-based encyclopedia could match what Britannica offered.

To which I replied, “Then Britannica will soon be out of business.” He scoffed, and left. Britannica did sort-of see the handwriting on the wall, and eventually climbed all the way into the 20th century. It remains to be seen if they will make it into the 21st. Thanks to the Chicago Politician with the Blank Resume, my business is BOOMING!

Grae says:

Britannica: Fix your HTML and lose JavaScript dependency and maybe Google will like you better.

There’s one reason above anything anyone’s said here as WHY Google likes Wikipedia over Britannica: Britannica’s site REQUIRES JavaScript to work.

I just performed a test on both Wikipedia and Britannica’s sites with NoScript turned on, Wikipedia is going strong and Britannica is utterly broken. Anyone want to guess what the Googlebot indexer can’t parse?

If you said JavaScript you get a gold star. I’m still amazed at how many big companies don’t get this. IF YOU WANT SEARCH ENGINES TO BE ABLE TO PROPERLY INDEX YOUR SITE, DO NOT REQUIRE JAVASCRIPT TO SEE YOUR CONTENT.

The second reason why the Googlebot likes Wikipedia better is because their pages are semantically better than Britannica’s: Wikipedia has the title of every article in an <H1> tag, subheadings are in <H2> tags, and paragraphs are in <P> tags. This is the other thing that I see web admins totally missing all the time… web spiders can index your site better when you put content in the tags they should be going in. They’re called paragraph, heading, emphasis, etc tags for a REASON.

They help parsers understand your content: indexers can index your site properly, and screen readers to better present your site to the blind.

(Kudos to Mike, Techdirt has some good semantic HTML.)

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...