Encyclopaedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz announced today that new features will be rolled out on Britannica.com in what looks like an effort to get hip with the Web 2.0 crowd. This includes the ability for users to correct articles, one of the more powerful and controversial features of Britannica’s biggest online competitor for serving up encyclopedic information: Wikipedia.
But modifications from users will not appear immediately — unlike on Wikipedia, where you can have your moment of published glory instantly (if only fleetingly, before a heavy-handed editor deletes it). Britannica plans to check the facts on all user contributions before they are published — and they hope to do so within 20 minutes of the user pressing “submit”. I’ll believe that when I see it.
Before you can submit your own content to the site, you’ll be required to register with your real name and address. Not sure how they plan to verify that information. But the point is, Britannica still wants to differentiate itself from Wikipedia in terms of the quality of the content, which will still have to go through the hands of paid experts. Per Mr. Cauz:
The reason it took us a long time to create a more user interactive website is because of the amount of technology required to ensure the changes are implemented in an expeditious manner. We still want people to have to go through the editorial workflow. We are developing a curated knowledge database.
Britannica also hopes that more dynamic content may attract more attention from Google, which Mr. Cauz stopped just short of accusing of collusion with Wikipedia:
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. Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?
I decided to compare some articles between Wikipedia and Britannica.com. It’s well known that Wikipedia covers way more topics — a few years ago, a Britannica spokesman gave Wikipedia faint praise for covering the sport of extreme ironing, which oddly has no article in Britannica. So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that searches for somewhat obscure programming languages like Rexx and OCaml came up empty on Britannica.com. Searching for “programming” came up with a pretty decent list of topics. When I navigated to one, though, I was forced to sign up for a “free trial” (is that anything like a free lunch?), which required entering credit card information. They want to bill you the $69.95 annual fee at the end of the free trial if you don’t remember to cancel. Screw that.
So, lemme see if I’ve got this straight. When I want to look things up on the web, do I want to pay 70 smackers a year just to believe that the information that may or may not be on Britannica.com is maybe a little more accurate than what I could find for free and for sure on Wikipedia?
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a 240-year-old encyclopedia is still stuck in old media think.