Encyclopaedia Britannica goes social

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Like most bloggers I know, I tend to link to information resources online when I’m writing about a particular topic.

One reason is simply that linking to an explanation of something provides a reader of your content with an opportunity to find out more, or see something in more depth, without you the blogger having to explain it all in your blog post.

And like just about everyone I know, I tend to link to material on Wikipedia more than any other online information resource.

Why? Because it’s easy to do so, it’s free, Wikipedia’s definitions are often all you might need, and because you can have reasonable confidence that what you’re linking to is likely to be accurate enough.

So I’ve been quite intrigued to have been exploring Encyclopaedia Britannica online during the past few weeks and getting to know how a raft of new and free social media-related services, aimed squarely at bloggers and other people who publish on the web, will work.

(Disclosure: I’ve been working with Shel Holtz, whose client US-based Britannica is, on getting advance word out to some people in Europe about the upcoming launch of Britannica’s new services; as part of this, Britannica gave me a free account.)

Unlike Wikipedia, Britannica’s information resources require a paid subscription, one reason undoubtedly why free Wikipedia is an easier option for many.

Now, you can link to the full content of a Britannica entry, without having to have a paid subscription, through a new programme called Britannica Webshare.

Take this topic example – global warming. You want to find detailed information to reference in a blog post. If you participate in Webshare, you can link to global warming on Britannica, just as you can link to global warming on Wikipedia.

Go ahead, try it, see what you think. I’m not saying one is better than the other. Both provide breadth and depth of information with links to further details on a very big topic.

Personally, I like Britannica’s conversational and lay content style in this example, plus embedded video and other content on the same page to give you a rich multimedia experience.

And maybe the word ‘authoritative’ comes into play here: do people think works on Encylopaedia Britannica carry more authority than content elsewhere as those works are researched and written by academics? Are they more trusted therefore? Big questions.

But freely linking to full content on the Britannica website is just one element of what Britannica is now offering.

The Webshare programme offers topic clusters and widgets to bloggers and other web publishers which you can embed on your own site. Like this widget from which you can explore deeper into a topic and see all content related to that topic:

There’s also a Twitter channel you can follow to get daily tips about online content and updates about the Webshare programme.

I’m sure bloggers will have lots of opinion on the merits of Britannica’s moves with social media. That’s very welcome!

Some influential opinion-makers have already posted some initial commentary. Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch post on Friday includes this view:

[…] Britannica is doing a lot of things right – a relatively small staff of a hundred or so editors manages 4,000 unpaid (I believe) contributors who are recognized experts in their field. But, like the music labels, they still somehow feel as though people should pay to consume their content. And that means search engines can’t index their content. And that means they don’t exist.

Take a look at the more than 70 comments to his post – some terrific discussion there.

Dennis Howlett’s post yesterday has this opinion:

[…] People pay for scarcity and while you can argue that Wikipedia trumps Britannica because of the cost element, I know which I prefer to use as a primary research tool. Britannica will develop an alternative business model that allows it to attract revenue but quite how that shapes up remains to be seen. If it chooses to drop its annual charge for full access, then it could develop deeper resources paid for on an “as required” basis.

All excellent discussion material.

The Britannica Webshare programme is now rolling out. If you’d like to know a bit about the outreach planning behind the upcoming launch, take a look at Shel’s post today.

And if you’d like to be part of Webshare, you can apply online.

(I have a few discretionary free Britannica.com accounts available so if you’re a journalist or a business or academic blogger in Europe and would like one, drop me a concise note outlining why.)