by Timothy Lee

Filed Under:
business models, encyclopedias, wikipedia

britannica, wikipedia

HMS Britannic Optimistic About Deck-Chair Re-Arrangement

from the too-little-too-late dept

Jacob Grier points out the launch of Britannica Webshare, a service that will allow bloggers to access the Encyclopedia Britannica for free, and even to provide links that will allow readers to read individual articles -- but not the whole encyclopedia -- for free. This is a fine step, as far as it goes. But it's a comically small step given the challenges Britannica is facing. The site apparently still won't be available to non-bloggers, and presumably that means it also won't be available on search engines. And that means they're throwing away a huge chunk of their potential audience. But the more fundamental problem is that Wikipedia is already a much better encyclopedia, and it continues to improve rapidly. Wikipedia is roughly as accurate and it's an order of magnitude timelier and more comprehensive. I wouldn't use Britannica much if it were freely available; I'm certainly not going to waste time applying to be a part of its "Webshare" program.

We write a lot about old-media companies that are struggling to adapt to the Internet. We usually suggest business models that will help these business cope, and maybe even thrive, in the new technological environment. But I think Britannica might be a rare exception where the situation really is hopeless. Most old media companies, including Hollywood, the record labels, newspapers and magazines, and comic book producers, have a ton of content that people want, and that provides a foundation for their business models. In contrast, Britannica doesn't have any significant advantages over Wikipedia, and in some respects -- especially breadth and timeliness -- it's markedly inferior. As a result, it would be unlikely to get significant traffic even if it did everything else right. So I think there's a good argument to be made for laying off everyone involved in creating new versions of the encyclopedia and just leaving in place a skeleton staff in charge of selling the current edition to the dwindling number of people willing to pay for it.

The last time we wrote about the challenges facing Britannica, a representative from the company suggested a lot of people thought that Britannica hadn't yet made the transition to the web. But that's not my point at all. The fundamental problem is simply a matter of manpower. Wikipedia has tens of thousands of volunteer editors who collectively donate millions of hours of labor to the project. There's simply no way that a commercial encyclopedia edited in a traditional, hierarchical fashion, can compete with that. Britannica has to pay its editors, while Wikipedia gets its editors for free. Britannica likes to emphasize that its articles are written by credentialed experts. But this misses the point in a couple of ways. In the first place, while experts aren't given formal authority on Wikipedia, there are plenty of subject matter experts contributing to Wikipedia articles. More importantly, Wikipedia's editing process is based not on the authority of any one expert, but by citing reliable sources that anyone can check to verify the accuracy of the information. This kind of distributed peer review has allowed Wikipedia to produce a lot more content, with roughly the same accuracy, without hiring professional editors. There's just no way that a traditionally-organized commercial encyclopedia can keep up.

One valuable asset they do still have is their brand name, and I can see a couple of ways they might leverage it. One would be to simply auction it off to a totally different company that could put it to a better use -- the same way that the new Napster had no real connection to the old Napster. There might be a company out there with a different business model that would gain increased visibility with the Britannica brand. Another approach would be to turn lemonade into lemons by publishing a paper version of Wikipedia under the Britannica brand. This is one place where the established brand name would still be a big advantage; anyone who still wanted to buy a paper encyclopedia (it's a mystery to me why anyone would, but I'm sure they're out there) will probably prefer a Britannica-branded one, even if the content is identical to what you'd find on Wikipedia. Similarly, a lightly-edited, Britannica-branded web version of Wikipedia could generate some nice advertising revenue without requiring a big staff to produce new content. But I don't think there's any way a traditionally-produced encyclopedia can compete with Wikipedia, and programs like Webshare are too little, too late. The company needs to take some much more dramatic measures.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 20th, 2008 @ 5:56am

    "Wikipedia is already a much better encyclopedia"

    mm...I wouldn't go that far. If I want to read 3000-word entries discussing the sexuality of Dragonball Z characters, Wikipedia is great, but for any real research I'd much rather have a citation to Britannica.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Nate, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:27am

    Wiki or Britanica?

    They need to do something big or Wiki will replace them as the dominant source of information on the web. In fact, I think they already have. But, Wiki still has a little stigma of being user created, so one always wonders how accurate it all is. But, Brit needs to do something to make people get to their information, or they will go the way of the dodo. Actually, until reading this article, I had never even considered that they were on the web... I always use Wiki. And to the last poster... yes, there is a lot of crap on Wiki, but there is also a lot of informational stuff on real subjects.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Glaurung, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:33am

    "Wikipedia is already a much better encyclopedia"

    Not if you want to be certain that the article you're citing won't change in five minutes. Not if you want to be certain that the article you're citing reflects an actual scholarly consensus on the issue rather than the consensus of a group of internet geeks who may or may not know what they're talking about.

    The flaws of Wikipedia are well known and well documented -- beyond the obvious point that wikipedia's articles are in constant flux and in constant danger of being vandalized, their rule against "original research" discourages the participation of actual scholars and experts, so that articles are for the most part written by hobbyists. That right there means I would never cite Wikipedia for academic purposes, and if I was still a teacher, I would strongly discourage my students from doing the same.

    Then the moderation system can be and is abused, so that a crank or someone with an agenda can, by becoming a trusted member of the Wikipedia community, effectively hijack an article and twist it to serve their purposes while preventing more sane/moderate persons from fixing the article.

    Wikipedia is very useful, but for scholarly and academic uses, it's no replacement for a real encyclopedia and never will be.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Eliot, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:40am

    Wikipedia Britannica?

    Imagine if the knowledge and expertise (read: credentials) of Britannica merged with the speed and efficiency of Wikipedia. I think that would be a great marriage.

    There's the possibility of 'Britannica certified' content or something, on Wikipedia. Think if there were even 10% of the articles on Wikipedia that could be validly cited in a scholarly paper. Of course, Wikipedia could do this on their own (and from what I understand, there are rumors of the tool having 'officially approved versions').

    I think that Britannica would do well to work WITH Wikipedia instead of trying to compete, because they can't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Tom, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:49am

    Universities (in the UK at least) ban the referencing of Wikipedia. Britannica on the other hand is acceptable. They'll have the academic niche for a very long time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Spike, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:50am

    They should be able to finde a niche

    I think they can compete if they position themselves as a more upscale web-based encyclopedia. There is a lot of mistrust of Wikipedia out there, due to the wiki format. That mistrust is largely unwarranted, but it is a fact of the marketplace and an area where Britannica has a distinct advantage.

    Britannica does have a very large base of high-quality content - and while it does have to be maintained, most of the heavy lifting that has gone into the build-out has been completed, and can be capitalized on. If they can be the "other" web encyclopedia - and use their web presence to sell advertising, plus a few books on the side - that may be good enough to keep their business going.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    SteveD, May 20th, 2008 @ 6:55am

    Re: Glaurung

    "The flaws of Wikipedia are well known and well documented -- beyond the obvious point that wikipedia's articles are in constant flux and in constant danger of being vandalized, their rule against "original research" discourages the participation of actual scholars and experts, so that articles are for the most part written by hobbyists. That right there means I would never cite Wikipedia for academic purposes, and if I was still a teacher, I would strongly discourage my students from doing the same."

    That the only people that edit wiki pages are hobbyists is quite a strange notion; I edit and contribute to the pages of my profession (mostly because it’s the first page to come up on any Google search and I want people to have accurate information, but partly because I enjoy my work and like sharing it).

    It’s also a popular misconception that Wikipedias flaws prevent it being used as an academic reference; No encyclopaedia, including the Britanica, qualifies as an academic reference.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Sean, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:06am

    Re: Wikipedia Britannica?

    I was going to sugest the same thing. Have a Britannica reviewed articles and when others make changes to what was reviewed have it automatically note that. Also adding a comment field to changes so if some thing was spelled incorrectly or the format was changes others can rewiew the small changes and comfirm them.

    I also read about a user ranking system for reviewing articles it mostly was based on how many changes the user made and how long they have been there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    DKP, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:11am


    I am a student in college and I would never use wkipedia as a source for academic research because of the reasons others mentioned above but if I am just looking for genneral knowlege about a subject I might but (not likely) use a different encyclopedia as a way to quickly get dates or places but no more. Although wikipedia is an excelent way to find citable sites on the internet under the citations and exterior links I have used it to find many sites written by professors and industry professionals that I can cite as sources.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    sonofdot, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:41am

    Re: Re: Glaurung

    Since when do encyclopedias not qualify as academic references? In the UK, they certainly do. In the US, they certainly do. Maybe not for a masters dissertation, or for obtaining a doctorate, but they sure as hell qualify for secondary school and undergraduate research. Wikipedia, on the other hand, doesn't qualify for any of those.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    chris (profile), May 20th, 2008 @ 7:48am

    credibility as a commodity

    many academic types wince when you mention wikipedia. granted, they wince only slightly less when you mention an encyclopedia of any sort, but still it is an advantage that "real" publications have that they should be leveraging.

    instead of chasing after a generation of web users that are unaccustomed to paying for information, perhaps they should look for deals with universities, libraries, and the like to provide easily searched, referenced, and linked articles for academics that have the kind of credentialing that academics and research types value so much.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    dagobart, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:48am

    > Britannica likes to emphasize that its
    > articles are written by credentialed experts.


    I agree with you that Britannica misses the point here, but I also see yours is not shaped out sharp enough (in my humble opinion). You say

    > Wikipedia's editing process is based [...]
    > by citing reliable sources that anyone can
    > check to verify the accuracy of the
    > information.

    I'd say, the point is, people don't care about whether or not it's experts who write but for what they get out of the written article. Therefore, your argument that wikipedia provides evidence for what they claim just underpins mine. :-) People care what they get out of something, evidenve is something pretty hard, even if they get it by non-experts.

    Anyways, funny, today I looked at some rather similar situation, how library folks struggle to adapt to free information sources and the web in general. Especially over here in Europe where they once ramped up that 'Google crusher' project to remain 'independed' of it:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Paul, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:50am

    Re: They should be able to finde a niche

    Spike is right on the money here. The way Britannica can survive is to position itself as an expert-edited source, rather than crowd-sourced. Whether Wikipedia is more or less accurate is irrelevant: Britannica can simply offer a different flavor of the same product.

    Of course they would still have to offer the same availability as Wikipedia, which it seems they are still reluctant to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    dagobart, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:53am

    Err, shouldn't have replied from the feed and reading only to the middle of the posting. ... Just noticed, it was not by Mike but Timothy.

    Totally mislead.. sorry. Timothy, please feel addressed. :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon, May 20th, 2008 @ 8:11am

    Wiki is better because it has the world at life's speed for resources.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    John, May 20th, 2008 @ 8:20am

    Re: UK ban of wikipedia citations...

    You can still look up the sources Wikipedia and cite them!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    John, May 20th, 2008 @ 8:27am

    Re: " ...won't change in five minutes" .......

    True. But then how do you know the Britannica's content is not outdated? Change is happening at an increasing pace. To be informed you need something that is current. Using the Britannica for research and scholarship was discouraged (for me at least) beginning in high school. A paper citing it was viewed as the product of a lazy scholar. Both have their uses, but they are beginning points for searching for real scholarship. For the rest of us who just want to be casually informed on something, they are both fine, with the wikipedia's advantage of potentially being up-to-date.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    some other guy, May 20th, 2008 @ 9:50am


    Research? Just because it is printed on paper and bound in leather, doesn't make Britannica any more a primary source than Wikipedia is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    David Gerard, May 20th, 2008 @ 9:56am

    Wikipedia vs nothing at all

    It's important to note here that Wikipedia has never set out to compete with Britannica. Indeed, as a bunch of nerds who think writing an encyclopedia is the height of really cool fun, we still regard Britannica as the gold standard of quality we hope to reach - they do so much better in average article quality, for example.

    But. Wikipedia gained its present hideous popularity through convenience - an encyclopedia with a ridiculously wide topic range, with content good enough to be useful no matter how often we stress it’s not "reliable" (certified checked) as such, right there on your desktop. There was no competitor. We took over a niche without realising it was a niche, let alone intending to.

    Most of Wikipedia’s readers (the people who make it #8 site in the world) wouldn’t have opened a paper encyclopedia since high school. Wikipedia fills a niche that was previously ignored when not botched.

    You're right that it isn't clear how they'll compete. Perhaps using the Citizendium approach (wiki-based, more restrictions on entry, an express role for experts, slowly building up a collection of good articles) backwards, starting with their present corpus and opening it to expert wiki editing?

    "Really, I’m not out to destroy Microsoft. That will just be a completely unintentional side effect."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 20th, 2008 @ 10:42am

    I've never gotten all the academic hate towards wikipedia. Encyclopedias in general are never a good source for any serious (read: past secondary school) research / essay writing, since there's usually a good deal of time between each edition, and a hell of a lot can change in that time.

    Wikipedia, on the other hand, is updated at a rather disturbing rate. Although the aforementioned reliability problems mean it can never truly be accepted as an academic source, it's probably the best starting-off point available. I can't count the number of essays and pieces of research I've written where I've used wikipedia as the starting point for my research.

    But like I said, pretty much all serious research is carried out using the results of other pieces of research that have been published in the latest journals for whatever branch of academia you're in. An encyclopedia of any kind is essentially nothing more than a quick reference point, and for that Wikipedia is as good as any other, and far easier to use.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    TW Burger, May 20th, 2008 @ 11:21am

    Truth versus Acceptable versions

    The biggest problem with official, academically acceptable sources of information is that any political or social content has been edited to fit a certain bias.

    A good example is the uproar caused by Japanese history texts that described the "Rape of Nanking" as little more than bit of over-enthusiasm on the part of a few soldiers that were bravely serving the emperor.

    Wikipedia allows a more balanced source of information (although it can often not be).

    As an instructor I would allow Wikipedia in a citing as long as there were two or more other supporting references.

    I attempt to teach students that any "fact" should be viewed as an opinion that is not currently disproved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Kris, May 20th, 2008 @ 11:31am

    double check

    I am one of those guys still willing to pay for a EB subscription. I love Wikipedia, and it definitely is much faster than EB. But it's great to have a second source, with a different approach, in case of doubt. I think it's worth the money. And I would prefer to link to a source that does not refresh content several times a day.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    duder, May 20th, 2008 @ 11:36am

    combine them

    Maybe if Britannica teamed up with wikipedia for once, and then input their research into articles in a section meant for them saying "Brittanica certified" or something like that, then the average whining professor will shut up because now they can use the whole "who would you rather trust...." argument, now that their prized encyclopedia brother is "one of them"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    dataGuy, May 20th, 2008 @ 12:51pm

    They are just a little slow

    That they still don't get the internet should come as no surprise. This is the same organization that blew off Bill Gates idea for a multimedia version of the encyclopedia on CD-ROM. A historically bad business decision; right up there with Decca blowing off the Beatles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Rose M. Welch, May 20th, 2008 @ 1:11pm


    Wikipedia has references. I have yet to see a Britannica reference. I can follow the wikirefs and see what the text comes from, but I can't do with that Britannica. So who am I going to choose for research? Wikipedia, of course.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Tom Panelas, May 20th, 2008 @ 4:35pm

    Advice for Britannica

    Thanks for the suggestions, to those who made them. We'll probably take a lot of these into consideration, if we aren't already. Chances are we won't fire the editors just yet, though.

    Note to dataGuy: The business about us blowing off Gates is untrue, an urban myth, like that tale about Britannica being banned in Texas for a beer recipe. Britannica actually had a multimedia encyclopedia a few years before Microsoft.

    Cheers, Tom Panelas / Encyclopaedia Britannica

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:04pm

    Re: Banned in Texas

    The proper search link is here. This is HTML, for gosh sakes, people! There's no need for TinyURL crap here!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    lifebaka, May 20th, 2008 @ 7:10pm

    Replies and such

    If you want a non-changing version of an article for use, you can just go to the history tab up at the top of every page and click on one of the versions/revisions shown. That gives you a permanent URL for that version/revision. (link to my current Wikipedia userpage, for example)

    For those interested in the "flagged revisions" thing, you might want to try learning German. has it active currently.

    Cheers all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    dataGuy (profile), May 21st, 2008 @ 6:35am

    Re: Advice for Britannica

    Tom do you have a reference you can cite for your claim. I'll do a little checking on my end. I've heard this story for so long it will take more than just your word to change my mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    dataguy (profile), May 21st, 2008 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re: Advice for Britannica

    Okay, it is true that your CD-ROM came out before Microsoft's. The fact is that Britannica passed on Gates' offer and had no clue how to sell a CD-ROM. So describing it as an urban myth is misleading, at best.

    PDF with the details: ediaBritannica.pdf

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Tom Panelas, May 25th, 2008 @ 9:55pm

    Advice for Britannica


    Let me elaborate on what I said above.

    The simple story is that the two companies talked about a partnership and never came to terms they could agree on. Britannica passed on a partnership with Microsoft because the terms Microsoft offered weren't acceptable. Similarly, Microsoft passed on a partnership with Britannica because the terms Britannica offered weren't acceptable. It happens in business every day: companies talk, they don't get to yes, and they go their separate ways. It's not particularly interesting or revealing.

    With this story, of course, the usual overlay is that Britannica passed on the partnership with MS because Britannica didn't foresee that digital encyclopedias would displace print. In this telling of the story, Britannica thought they could just continue selling print and ignore electronic publishing. That's the gist of the story, and it's false.

    My sources are a combination of first-hand experience (I was at Britannica at the time and aware of the work toward electronic product development that was under way); the notes of people here who were involved in the Microsoft talks; and discussions with some of these same people years later, when the false account of the negotiations first emerged.

    A brief digression, but a necessary one. The Kellogg case you link to is riddled with errors, not the least of which is the assertion in the second paragraph that Britannica declared bankruptcy. This never happened; I don't even know where the authors of the case got the idea.

    Given this, however, it doesn't surprise me that the Kellogg case uses as its main source for the Britannica-Microsoft story a mid-90s book entitled The Microsoft Way. To the best of my knowledge, this book is the original source for the story you allude to. The author of that book had one goal: to write a paean to Microsoft at a time when the Redmond hegemon was on top of the digital world and it appeared to some they might rule it forever. He, the author of the book, that is, almost certainly got his information on the Britannica-Microsoft talks from someone at Microsoft, and I am fairly confident he never talked to anyone at Britannica to check the version of events he presented in the book. (Had he called here he would have been routed to me.)

    If he had checked with Britannica he would have found out that far from being oblivious to the prospect of digital encyclopedias, Britannica had, by the mid-1980s, already published one and was preparing to develop others as the installed base of computers grew. (Interestingly, one of the other facts the Kellogg case gets wrong is the implication that Grolier's mid-80s CD-ROM was the first electronic encyclopedia. It wasn't. Britannica published an online version of our encyclopedia in 1981 for Lexis/Nexis subscribers. It may have been the first electronic encyclopedia; it may not have. I don't know of an earlier one.) That Britannica turned Microsoft down out of indifference to digital technologies was simply somebody's spin -- somebody at Microsoft, I can only conclude.

    As for what happened next in the marketplace, yes, Microsoft was the big player in the CD-ROM market in the 1990s and banged us around some, though we did manage to capture decent market share eventually. How did they do it? In essence by giving their encyclopedia away -- in OEM bundles and "net-to-zero" rebates in retail. They did this because they could afford to do it, and at the time having a widely used encyclopedia along with all their other software assets fit with their strategic aim of maintaining control of the desktop operating system. I don't say this to complain, just to point out that Microsoft beat us then because they had deeper pockets, not because they saw the digital future sooner or more clearly than we did.

    Britannica spent the 1990s transforming itself from a print publisher to a digital publisher with some print products. The task consumed the company's energies for most of a decade, in the course of which we did a number of things right. We also did plenty of things wrong, but failing to see that encyclopedias should and soon would be primarily digital wasn't one of them. I'm pretty sure we saw that and acted on it before anyone else.

    And yes, as you say, the story of our putative cluelessness in the face of Microsoft's offer has been repeated often. But such is the nature of truthiness, is it not? That's why I compared the story to the hilarious bit about Texas and the beer recipe. That one is so widespread on the Net it must be true, right? Except that it's not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    dataGuy (profile), May 27th, 2008 @ 6:49am

    Re: Advice for Britannica

    Tom thanks for the additional detail. It is helpful to hear Britannica's side of the story.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Tom Panelas, May 28th, 2008 @ 9:26am

    Re: Re: Advice for Britannica

    My pleasure. Thanks for reading it all. Tom

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Jussi-Ville Heiskanen, May 29th, 2008 @ 1:56am

    There will always be a Britannica.

    There will always be a market for Britannica, much as there always will be a market for horse driven carriages.

    Vanity and curiosity value.

    While David Gerards point that the _average_ level of wikipedia articles is lower than the same of Britannica, due to the sheer number of articles we have, is well taken; it is worth noting that a very large number of Britannica articles are so brief, that they would be deleted out of hand on wikipedia, due to not containing enough information to be even marginally useful. There are things to be said for not setting limits on size of content. While printing the whole of wikipedia in every language on paper would be a non-trivial undertaking, on the web, there is no need to artificially self-limit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    skylights, May 31st, 2008 @ 1:44pm

    They should buy Citizendium, upload all their articles to it, rename it Britannica, and adopt Citizendium's editing process. Then study the Wikimedia Foundation to find out how they make money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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