Britannica Plans to Take On Wikipedia with Community Edits

By Josh Catone
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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 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 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.

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  • I think the main reason why Wikipedia is more popular than Britannica is that it is free. Each time a user is looking for in-depth information at Britannica he has to pay the price, or at least activate a risk free trial. If Britannica makes access to content free, given the reliability of the source I think it will not take long to become at least half as popular as Wikipedia. Then some PR and SM campaigns and voila… I think it is possible.

    Wikipedia ranks higher than Britannica (and everything else) because almost everyone who has a site/ blog has linked to Wikipedia at least once… Linking to Britannica is pointless for my readers for example – I do not want to send them to a place where they have to pay for the same information that is free elsewhere on the web.

  • Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?

    Sounds like someone’s got their nose out of joint because the great minds behind their product (which it seems they view as being far more superior) weren’t savvy enough to work out how the Internet really works.

  • Larry Sanger

    In fact Citizendium is doing rather well, despite being under two years old and having an unusual expert-public editing model. We’re closing in on 10,000 articles. Wikipedia started small, too; I should know…

    Your readers are very welcome to join us. Check us out for yourself at and join us if you like what you see.

  • @Larry Sanger

    Great to see someone over from Citizendium join the discussion. I would like to make a personal observation and offer my opinion on the matter (and admittedly, this is subjective, and just reflects my opinion here). When I compare Citizendium’s home page against Wikipedia’s main page, the differences are immediate. I feel that while Wikipedia’s page (from a layout standpoint) is nice and aligned (the eye sees a nice grid structure that makes things easier to scan and follow), the same cannot be said for Citizendium. While you have a rather nice and neat left hand menu, overall, things are not ‘grid-like’enough, in that not many things line up nicely.. I find the eyes fighting with the page layout and structure a bit more than Wikipedia’s.

    Perhaps another aspect that makes wikipedia more appealling is the amount of whitespace and blocked-in content of which are sometimes coloured with pale yet pleasant pastel colour. Citizendium in contrast makes more use of greys than white, and as a result, feels ‘gloomier’. Again, this is all subjective, and I certainly mean no offense by these ovservations. But I would consider revamping the ‘presentation’ of Citizendium to make it less gloomy and making the layout more grid-like in structure (lining things up more nicely).

    I think in the end, it’s great to see some competitiveness on the net. Choice is never a bad thing. But if the presentation (and as such, the impressions) lack behind the competition, it makes it that much harder to compete IMO, even with enough valid content.

    My apologies for this off-topic post. And again, it’s subjective and not meant to be insulting. Just an observation. Best of wishes with Citizendium moving forward.

  • Tarh

    In this area, the perception of the relationship between Wikipedia and Britannica could be best described by the “Get a Mac” (“Mac vs. PC”) commercials. Wikipedia is just new and hip while Britannica is old and dusty. They’ll have a hard time breaking this negative connotation before they can even hope to go against Wikipedia.

  • W Williams

    The comments about Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are interesting.

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.