by Mike Masnick
Wed, Jun 4th 2008 10:33pm
by Timothy Lee
Mon, Jun 2nd 2008 10:50am
from the color-us-skeptical dept
A while back I did a slightly flippant post suggesting that Britannica's Webshare program -- which allows bloggers free access to the Britannica website -- was a step in the right direction, but was probably too little, too late to compete effectively against Wikipedia. Jorge Cauz, Britannica president, asked for the opportunity to give his side of the story, and so we're pleased to feature this short interview, which was conducted last Wednesday.
I was reasonably impressed with Cauz's answers. Competing against Wikipedia is an awfully difficult thing to do, and Cauz seems to be doing many of the right things -- focusing on timeliness, collaboration, and other areas where Wikipedia currently has the edge. He points out that Britannica has another line of products in the K-12 education space, which suggests that Britannica is already leveraging its brand name in other businesses, suggesting that my idea of licensing the brand to another company might not be such a good idea.
Nevertheless, I think Britannica is going to face a serious uphill challenge to remain relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated encyclopedia market. Cauz says that traffic has grown 40 percent in the last two years, and that 17 percent of its traffic comes from its Webshare program. But 40 percent traffic growth isn't that impressive when we consider how far behind Britannica is to Wikipedia in web traffic. For example, between January 2006 and January 2007, Wikipedia more than doubled its traffic. If Britannica is growing at 20 percent per year and Wikipedia is growing at 150 percent a year, Britannica's will become less and less relevant in terms of market share. So while Britannica's market share may not be literally dwindling, they're going to have to take some much more radical steps if they want to capture more than a trivial share of the encyclopedia market.
Techdirt: Mr. Cauz, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Tell me a little bit about the Webshare program.
Jorge Cauz: I don't recall exactly when it was launched, but we launched the functionality a couple of years ago. It has been implemented for a while and the main idea behind the Webshare program was trying to make sure that people link to us freely and make sure that the people who follow those links can have access to Britannica. I read your post, and in contrast to your belief that many people won't do it--or at least that you won't do it--we now have close to 17 percent of our traffic coming from people directly linking to us. So Webshare has been a good way for us to show non-subscribers the depth, breadth, and quality of the content we have. So I think it's good for us and good for the readers of our content.
And the other 83 percent are paid subscribers?
Well, they're basically paid subscribers, people that are coming and visiting us. We have several different sites, but on the consumer site, we have about 700,000 unique visitors every day.
What's your long-term vision for the site, and for the company? Is it going to continue to be a subscription-based website? Is the paper-based encyclopedia going to continue?
Paper is completely incidental for us. It's not a very important business for us. We continue to do it and it continues to be profitable, but it is a very small portion of our business and an even smaller portion of our profits. Britannica basically is a digital company today. The majority of our revenues come from non-tangible products, both in the institutional market and the consumer space. I read your advice on your blog, and I think your suggestions for business models are faulty.
I think that there are plenty of ways in which Britannica can continue to grow in the future. Many of them are in the e-learning space. Today we have more than than 47 percent penetration in the K-12 market. We have almost 70 percent penetration in the public library market. And these aren't just reference products. These are e-learning solutions around the teacher. We try to be a more relevant source in the classroom as opposed to in the library. There are programs that are linked to the curriculum that are reading level appropriate that are full of lesson plans and interaction materials that are much more part of the learning process as opposed to a passive role in the reference products. There's a huge new stream of revenue coming in from these e-learning products in the K-12 market.
And I certainly didn't mean to suggest that all of those products weren't viable. My focus was more on the encyclopedia.
But that's far from licensing the brand as an empty shell to someone who wants to do something like Napster. That's actually, I think, myopic.
Sure, that's a good point. So in terms of the encyclopedia, the long-term market you think is primarily in k-12 education?
No, no, no. We have very different databases and very different services. We have products that are meant for young kids. We have products that are meant for the middle school market. And there are products like the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is meant for the generally curious lay person. You know, that will continue to be an important part of our business, and it will continue to be an important part of our effort. That database, and the service that we provide for those people that are seeking knowledge and are intellectually curious, you know that product, which I think has great potential.
I tend to disagree with you in terms of your assessment of Britannica vs. Wikipedia. I do think that we are obviously, by the nature of what we do and how we go about it, we are a smaller dataset than that of Wikipedia but size is not the only thing that matters. Timeliness--I tend to disagree with you. We change our articles not every month, not every week, but we change our articles on a daily basis. If things require, we change our articles every 20 minutes. We have a publishing system that allows us to change our articles immediately. We have a publishing system that engages communities and users with our content and allows them to actually spot things that may be not updated and for us to turn our attention to those and actually be able to process those things quite immediately.
Our new generation of products, which you'll see very very soon, you'll see a very different version. You will start seeing completely new features into the Britannica products in the consumer space, where the key thing here is collaboration. It's about ownership of content--not ownership in terms of who owns the copyright, which is completely incidental--ownership in terms of who is behind the content and who is saying what. So you will see really quite a different Britannica and we believe that you will be pleasantly surprised. I hope to be able talk to you six months or a year from now and be able to revisit some of your business model proposals for Britannica. Maybe see if what we're doing is something that you think would be profitable.
By the way, for the record, you mentioned that we have a dwindling number of subscribers. We have grown thanks to the clarity with which the market has in terms of the difference between us and Wikipedia and the other competitors, subscribers in the consumer space have grown 40 percent in the two years. Revenue from the institutional market and in the college market alone has gone up more than 25 percent. So it's not a dwindling number, but a larger market because of some of the factors that you might be dismissive of: factually correct, objective. Not neutral point of view like Wikipedia. We don't strive for that. We think there are reasonable, informed points of view that are worthwhile exploring and letting the reader be exposed to it. We try to reach objectivity by having a fair share of these points and counterpoints being discussed in articles at great length. There's a huge amount of respect for factual correctness at Britannica, for objectivity.
Also, Britannica has an impeccable style that people are able to understand, that people are able to learn from Britannica basic language rules, things that will not be happening in Wikipedia. Obviously, up-to-date-ness is something that we don't relax on. We update the database at the rate of about 30-35 percent per year. A third of the database is completely revised on a yearly basis thanks to the input of our contributors. That's something that is probably much more speedy than Wikipedia. Obviously Wikipedia cannot do that because they are several times as large as we are. So again, a few of the things that I believe are either urban myth or people want to believe or "truthiness" are not necessarily corresponding with how we see it and how we can actually tell you that it is. We do have the numbers with us, and we do have the ability to refute some of these statements.
Can you talk a little bit more about the editing process? You mentioned timeliness, and you mentioned collaboration. One of the things I've found very impressive on Wikipedia is that if a news event happens, say somebody famous dies, it will be a matter of seconds before that's updated on Wikipedia. Does Britannica have something like that?
Yes we do. Editors have the ability to go into the database and incorporate a change as it happens. When it's important, the community will flag it, and an editor will change it in 20 minutes at the most. The editor can go in and publish directly online, and then we actually circumvent the process so when a person is actually changing an emergent fact that has been noticed, the copy-editing department doesn't get involved and the indexing department doesn't get involved. The editor has full power to make the changes that he or she sees as required. This is happening more and more.
These are some of the things we will see more evident. We will be able to not only change more frequently with the help of our editors and contributors with the new site that we will have but we will actually try to make sure that our users and visitors engage with the content much more frequently and use the content also for their own purposes in a different way. So again, it's not going to be a wiki. Britannica will not delegate its responsibility as an editor. I think that you shouldn't delegate your responsibility for what you say. You know, you have your name on your blog, and whether it's true or not, you need to be behind it. We believe that that's really a good model, with the view that the Internet actually provides huge opportunities for Britannica in the future. We believe that we're going to be the first ones to make the process of creating knowledge a really, truly collaborative process without delegating the responsibility of us editors. I think it will be more evident in the next few weeks and months.
One of the trends I think we've seen recently is that search engines have become an increasingly important source of traffic. Is Britannica doing anything to make it easier for people to get to? So if an article comes up in a search engine result, is there a way that people can get access to that article for free or would they have to become subscribers in order to do that?
We are trying some different things in that area. We're actually trying to segment the market, and these are some things that I'm not ready to discuss at this point but we're doing continuous testing with search engines, trying to see what are the different ways in which we can segment the market and allow people to use our content for certain occasions without entirely giving away the subscription model which is still very important for us. It may change in the future or it may not; I'm not really married to the subscription model. I think there's huge potential in the free web for Britannica.
So you think that in the future, the site could become a completely free, advertising supported site?
No, what I'm saying is that there would be a very good version of Britannica that would be free.
by Timothy Lee
Tue, May 20th 2008 5:24am
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.
by Mike Masnick
Thu, May 8th 2008 8:31am
from the manufacturing-controversy dept
Now we're seeing yet another such case. Ethan Bauley writes in to point to an article suggesting that somehow Wikipedia authors are being ripped off because Bertelsmann is going to publish a paper version of Wikipedia for profit. But, again, it's the same thing. People who contribute to Wikipedia clearly felt that giving their labor away for free was a fair transaction. Bertelsmann is now trying to make Wikipedia valuable to a different audience by putting it into book form. They're taking on the risk of printing the book (building the house), and to have the various writers go back later and demand payment is equally as ridiculous. Luckily, it seems like most people recognize this -- and many comments on the ReadWriteWeb article point this out. It's just a few agitators, who apparently want to change the terms after the fact, who are having trouble getting this.
by Mike Masnick
Mon, May 5th 2008 1:01pm
from the you-don't-get-to-edit-the-law dept
That said, it seems doubly wrongheaded to sue Wikipedia for this. First, as we've discussed many, many times, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects sites from the actions of their users. She has every right to go after whoever put up the page in the first place. But she shouldn't be blaming Wikipedia for it -- and any lawyer who would file this lawsuit should have known that and made it clear to her as well. Furthermore, this is a pure Streisand Effect situation. Before this, chances are that almost no one had seen the Wikipedia page. It was not up very long before it was deleted, and there probably just weren't that many people searching for her. Yet now, thanks to this, her name will forever be associated both with the claims she's trying to hide from the various news stories about this case, but those searching on her name will also see that she's filing lawsuits like this one. Again, this is something that her lawyer should have known. Of course, there are Wikipedia pages on both Section 230 and The Streisand Effect. A quick look around Wikipedia may have helped to avoid this unnecessary lawsuit against Wikipedia.
by Timothy Lee
Mon, Apr 28th 2008 12:58pm
from the social-surplus dept
One of the most common reactions when people first learn about Wikipedia is to wonder where people find the time to write millions of articles for free. That's precisely the reaction Clay Shirky got (thanks to Luis Villa) from, ironically enough, a television producer. Shirky points out the obvious answer: people spend a lot more time watching dumb television shows than they do contributing to Wikipedia. Shirky estimates that Wikipedia represents about 100 million hours of collective effort by Wikipedia's editors. In contrast, Americans spend something like 200 billion hours watching television each year. And however pathetic people might find it that someone would spend their evenings having edit wars with people on Wikipedia, it's surely more pathetic to spend your evenings on the couch watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island. Even an online game like World of Warcraft, which many people deride as nerdy and anti-social, at least involves interacting with other people. Indeed Shirky argues, correctly in my view, that the transformation of our social lives from passive to active forms of entertainment is just beginning. People still spend a huge amount of time consuming passive media like television. If even a small fraction of that mental energy was diverted to more active pursuits, it could lead to the production of dozens of socially-beneficial efforts like Wikipedia. The problem isn't finding people with time on their hands; we've got tens of millions of those. The challenge is finding socially-beneficial projects that they'll enjoy participating in more than re-runs of Seinfeld.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 15th 2008 11:22am
from the please,-please,-please-make-it-stop dept
Since then the brain surgery "proof" of Wikipedia's problem has shown up plenty of times, with the latest one being pointed out by Slashdot quoting a professor who dislikes Wikipedia so much that she fails to see the problems in what she (supposedly an "expert") is saying. As she notes: If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery, who would you rather it be performed by - a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?
So let's debunk this once and for all. First off, no one would want a brain surgery based on someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Wikipedia, but that proves absolutely nothing. No one would want brain surgery done by someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Encyclopedia Britannica either -- but you don't see this professor freaking out and trashing Britannica, do you? Wikipedia is a tool, just like Britannica, and it's not designed to be a reference on how to do brain surgery.
The second problem with the "brain surgery" example is the suggestion that experts and the folks working on Wikipedia are somehow mutually exclusive. It's this idea that no one who actually knows anything inputs information on Wikipedia, and the only people who do contribute know nothing. That's pretty clearly been proven untrue, so it's difficult to take this complaint particularly seriously.
As for the professor in question, let's take a look at some of her other statements:
"People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading."This has to be one of the funniest statements she makes, because every point that she makes can be equally applied to so-called "expert" resources or publications. And, there's a pretty big difference with most of those publications and Wikipedia: with those other sources, most of them can't or won't be changed when the "wrong, incomplete, biased or misleading" info is found. That's not the case with Wikipedia. Furthermore, in a bit of pure irony, this professor doesn't seem to realize that by making all of these incorrect statements, she's showing just how little you can trust supposed "experts" in the first place. After all, she's going on and on about trusting "experts" over the masses, while showing that she doesn't even understand how Wikipedia works at all, showing her own wrong, incomplete, biased and misleading positions.
This isn't to say that Wikipedia is perfect. It's not. It's got plenty of problems. But the lesson that this professor should be teaching is that you can't trust any source by itself, and you should double-check and confirm any information you find, whether it's from Wikipedia, a supposed "professor" or anyone else. It's not brain surgery to understand such a lesson.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 8th 2008 3:38pm
from the and-gets-called-on-it dept
by Mike Masnick
Wed, Mar 19th 2008 5:18am
from the mine,-all-mine! dept
by Timothy Lee
Thu, Mar 13th 2008 2:07pm
from the penny-wise-pound-foolish dept
My friend Jerry Brito thinks that Wikipedia should stop begging its users for money and should start selling ads instead. I'm not sure I agree. Part of the genius of Wikipedia's design is that its editing process self-selects for people who are passionate about designing a great encyclopedia. It has to, because if you don't find editing Wikipedia enjoyable, there isn't much else to draw you in. As a result, the senior Wikipedia editors tend to be strongly focused on making Wikipedia the best encyclopedia it can be, and while politics certainly happens, it's a relatively minor aspect of the site's operations. People either learn to get along with one another or leave the site in frustration. One beneficial consequence of Wikipedia's current structure is that it doesn't matter very much who captures the most senior leadership positions on the site, because all you win is the opportunity to review hundreds of editing disputes among other contributors.
If Wikipedia began selling ads, it would generate millions of dollars almost overnight. Suddenly, it would matter a lot who held the top leadership positions in the organization. Being a member of the Wikipedia board would no longer be a thankless exercise in public service, but would be a relatively glamorous opportunity to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to one's pet causes. Over time, the senior leadership positions would be sought out by people who are more excited about doling out largesse than editing an encyclopedia. And indeed, in the long run, it's not hard to imagine the senior management of Wikipedia coming to view Wikipedia as a cash cow rather than a public trust. Having hired a large staff and set up various programs, Wikipedia executives would be increasingly reluctant to make decisions that would improve the encyclopedia but might reduce ad revenue. And that, in turn, could gradually antagonize rank-and-file Wikipedians, who might resent having their labors generating millions of dollars to be spent by a self-perpetuating elite that may or may not represent their own interests and values.
Wikipedia's value as a public resource vastly outweighs the advertising revenue the site might generate. It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to jeopardize the site's decentralized, voluntarist spirit by injecting large sums of money into the equation. The "tin-cup approach" may be irritating, but it has the cardinal virtue of keeping the site's leadership firmly anchored to the interests of its most avid users. Jerry cites Craigslist and Mozilla as examples of nonprofits that have avoided the path of corruption, but I think there are important distinctions to be drawn. Craigslist does not depend on the goodwill of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and it's run by an unusually public-spirited founder. As for Mozilla, I think it's too early to tell whether Mozilla's millions will have pernicious effects on the organization's long-term health. So far I've been skeptical of charges that the Mozilla-Google relationship is corrupting, but the relationship is only a few years old. There's still plenty of time for things to go wrong.