Since it first broke onto the internet, Wikipedia has generated some of the most polarized articles, the harshest critiques and the staunchest support, that I have ever read. Most of these articles tend to focus on reliability or the perception of reliability, to borrow from Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s co-founders.
Sanger wrote, almost three years ago, a very eloquent article on what he sees as a pervasive and underlying flaw in the Wikipedian culture: anti-elitism. I happen to agree with him on this point. Certainly a doctorate in psychology qualifies an author better than 10,000 wiki-edits.
What I find interesting, though, is the reaction of Wikipedia’s critics. Rather than observe and adapt, the "more reliable" sites, like Encyclopaedia Britannica have stuck with their pre-Wiki concept of an online encyclopedia.
The first, and most obvious observation, is the length of the article. Britannica only gives you the first 250 words for free, cutting off mid-sentence. The Wikipedia article is several pages long, including examples and photos. I also noticed the difference between the URIs, Wikipedia’s simple
/wiki/Suspension_bridge compared to Britannica’s cryptic
But the biggest difference is the links. The Wikipedia article has hundreds of outbound links, most right in the article—some external sources are at the bottom. The vast majority of these links are related to the article, and only a relative few go to extraneous or legal stuff. Britannica has very few links, none in the text of the article, and the only related ones are just more search results towards the bottom of the page (below the fold).
I’m sure the guys over at Google’s AdSense division dream of getting their contextual ads onto Wikipedia—a thing not likely to happen. So why couldn’t Britannica snatch up that revenue?
As Randall Munroe described so aptly, all those links keep users on Wikipedia for hours, sometimes reaching hundreds of page views. Most people don’t avail themselves of their ability to edit: it’s fascinating enough as-is. Web designers and developers spend much of their working lives trying to get users to stay on their sites. Wikipedia did it in the simplest way possible: links.
Britannica and other encyclopedias already have the articles. All they need to do is "wikify" them—a Wikipedian word meaning "to format … and add internal links to material" relevant to the article.
By putting their entire articles online, filled with internal and interesting links, traditional encyclopedias like Britannica might be able to generate the same kind of fascinated browsing that has become foil to would-be productive students and employees everywhere.
Couple that with the seemingly limitless font of cash that is internet advertising and it’s not hard to see how much money Britannica and their peers are throwing away.