An interview at the Sydney Morning Herald with Encyclopedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz revealed that the encyclopedia plans to roll out on its web site user contributed content within the next 24 hours. The change in policy is clearly aimed squarely at Wikipedia, which Cauz criticized as being “very uneven” and containing “plenty of cracks.”
Cauz said that adding user created content to the encyclopedia would help readers to better learn about the subjects they’re researching by giving them a chance to edit, update, or create their own content. But if there was one theme the permeated the entire interview, it was that Britannica is sick of playing second fiddle to Wikipedia online. Cauz even took a pot shot at Google for allowing Wikipedia entries to rank so highly.
“If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google I would be very [displeased] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia,” he said. “Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?”
We found in September that Wikipedia does indeed rank very highly on Google for the most searched for terms, appearing on the first page of results for the majority of them. However, the greater question is whether adding community created content will really help Britannica compete.
Encyclopedia Britannica won’t just be turning over its content to the masses to edit wiki-style. Rather, community edits will be vetted by the company’s staff of expert writers before being posted to the site. Eventually, changes made via the community content submission process could find their way into the printed version of the encyclopedia, says Cauz, which is reprinted every two years.
However, Britannica is not the first Wikipedia alternative to try competing based on authority. Most notably is Citizendium, a Wikipedia competitor that requires authors to provide their real name (Britannica will, too), and only publishes articles that have been approved by “qualified” experts. I took a look at Citizendium in April 2007, a month after it launched, and found it lacking at the time. Though it was only a month old, the encyclopedia had just 13 approved articles and 1625 being written — leaving it well short of Wikipedia.
Though it was difficult to make judgments about quality, especially with so few articles approved at the time, I found that Citizendium was not markedly better the Wikipedia, and was in some cases noticeably worse. Almost two years later, the site has just 89 approved articles and just over 9100 under development — compare that to Wikipedia, which is growing at a rate of over 1400 articles per day. The real measure of success, however, is traffic, and in that department Citizendium is not performing very well. Compete data shows that while Wikipedia gets almost 60 million visitors per month, Citizendium barely registers.
So can Britannica, taking an almost identical approach to Citizendium, really compete with Wikipedia? Well, there are some key differences that put Britannica in a better position to compete. First, while no where near the popularity of Wikipedia, Britannica is no slouch when it comes to traffic — Compete shows Britannica.com with a monthly audience of nearly 3 million visitors.
Second, Britannica has a much larger library of content to start with. Unlike Citizendium, which was starting from a basically blank slate. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Britannica’s database of articles has 46 million words — Wikipedia, meanwhile, had over 600 million words in 2006. But likely, no one visiting Britannica.com is going to complain about a lack of available material.
So will user contributed content help Britannica to compete with Wikipedia? The bottom line answer is: probably not. Wikipedia will continue to be the web’s top general reference destination because its results are accurate enough for most people’s queries. Simply adding user content won’t make Britannica a more attractive reference destination.
However, increased engagement with users can only be a good thing for the encyclopedia, and will undoubtedly raise traffic. Even though user generated content won’t ultimately help Britannica to take a bite out of Wikipedia’s dominance on the web, it will likely help strengthen their brand by building a community around it.
Josh Catone joined Mashable in May 2009 and is Executive Director of Editorial Projects. Before joining Mashable, Josh was the Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb, the Lead Blogger at SitePoint, and the Community Evangelist at DandyID.