Ian Grant is the MD of Britannica UK, responsible for the EMEA regions. I’ve been talking to Ian about how EB has adapted to the internet, the threat from Wikipedia, and its plans for the future…

Has Encyclopaedia Britannica been slow to adapt to online competition?

I think one thing that hasn’t been made clear when we are discussed in relation to the internet is the fact that Britannica has been online for the last twelve years. Also, the consumer website that most web users will know of is a small part of our overall business. The larger point is that we have four main areas where we cater for customers online: consumer, academic institutions, libraries, and schools.

What proportion of EB’s revenues come from its online operations?

Roughly 60% comes from online, of that around 15% comes from subscriptions to the consumer version of the websites, so this represents a relatively small pat of our business.

We criticised the user experience on Britannica.com on this blog recently, any plans for improvements?

I did read your article and thought that the comments you made, such as the issues with client side scripting slowing the site down, and the search function, were appropriate. We did redesign the website recently, it was much plainer before, but we are doing a lot of reviewing and testing at the moment, as we look to improve. 

Also, our president Jorge Cauz has been talking recently about giving people more ability to contribute to the site by editing articles that are already on the site and adding new content.

How will this process work? Will it be as open as Wikipedia?

We have a strict editing process that any new edits and entries have to go through before they will be added to the website or the published editions of the encyclopedia. Entries will have to be fact-checked by our staff.

Britannica has 4,500 contributors around the world, consisting of academics and various other experts in their fields, and their entries and edits have to go through a team of 100 editors before approval. This rigorous process is what makes EB reliable, and we would not compromise and risk lowering the quality of our content.

We are testing the offer of a space for people to comment on our articles, update or check any facts, and write additions to our articles. If we feel that material submitted by the public is suitable for publication and incorporation into the encyclopedic database, then it will be assessed, fact-checked, edited for style and incorporated into the database, citing the writer responsible for the edits.

Finding the right balance between user-generated content and curated information is a challenge, and something which we have in common with newspapers, as they adapt to online trends.

Can you update articles as quickly in response to changing events?

We update on a daily basis, but it still goes through the editorial process. Our editorial team has changed its practices on this in the last three years. For instance, we were able to update entries related to Benazir Bhutto in response to her assassination last year. Her Britannica biography, and entries on Pakistan and India were all updated and published online within two hours. This was not a wikipedia-style process but a curated process.  

Britannica doesn’t provide news or current affairs, so it is not as important for us to update as quickly as the BBC or to provide instant comment on events. What we do well is to provide deep context, to give people the history behind events and tell users about the details underlying events. 

The value we deliver is that of confidence – users can have confidence in the accuracy of the information we supply.

How much of a problem is the popularity of Wikipedia?

I think the comparison is a non-debate, because we offer something very different. Wikipedia is a fun site to use and has a lot of interesting entries on there, but their approach wouldn’t work for Encyclopedia Britannica.

My job is to create more awareness of our very different approaches to publishing in the public mind. They’re a chisel, we’re a drill, and you need to have the correct tool for the job.

Is Britannica profitable?

Yes, across the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions I am responsible for, we have grown the business in each of the last two years. This is in our three main categories of users, academic institutions, schools and consumers, and these customers are prepared to pay for the quality of content and the confidence in the material that we offer. The subscription renewal rate for institutions like libraries is about 98%. 

Have you considered going for a free model for the consumer site to attract more traffic and links?

The site was free at one point, about eleven or twelve years ago, but perhaps we were too far ahead of our time then. We had no commercial model, our servers crashed with all the traffic to the site, and the changes didn’t work at all. This model was introduced by the new owner at the time, who felt we had to adapt to the internet, and it took us years to recover from this.

Even now, I’m not convinced that the free, ad-supported model for the consumer website would work. Advertising can be hard to come by and undermines the value proposition.

There is value in the publishing process which articles on Britannica go through, and we have to balance the need to pay professional contributors, writers and editors
in order to maintain the quality element of our proposition with the
mission to deliver globally online and in print timely information in
which users can have complete confidence in.

One example we have to be wary of is German publisher Brockhaus, which has been published since 1808. It tried and failed to move everything online by providing free editorial material supported by advertising. It’s a dangerous approach.

People can still link to our content and visitors will be able to access articles on the site, though at some point, Britannica says its product has a value and provides the offer of a month’s free trial. Once users take up this offer, we have very high conversion rates – up to 50%.

However, it’s important for us to get across to people the value of the content, so we are looking at alternative ways of doing this.

How important is SEO for Britannica?

Google is an important channel to market, and we have been using it to promote niche areas, such as our recently launched products for homework help. We rank well for phrases related to this area. We employ a search agency to look after this and our paid search marketing.