Technology has made so many items obsolete, from wall clocks to record players, but the thing I miss the most is a set of encyclopedias. The blue bound Encyclopedia Britannica set sat on a bookshelf in my dad’s study and was a reliable resource for countless school reports. As a young mother, I picked up an odd volume here and there at book sales and read a random entry to my kids each night as part of story time. Sadly, the information age finally proved too much for Encyclopedia Britannica, which stopped publishing the multi-volume sets in 2010.
But just last week, the company announced a new product that it hopes will correct misinformation found in search results. Britannica Insights is a free browser extension for Chrome that works with most major search engines, including Google, Bing and Yahoo. Install it with a single click to begin seeing Britannica facts side-by-side Wikipedia and others.
“With the addition of this latest extension, Britannica Insights will make it easier for everyone from kids to curious adults to professional researchers to find trustworthy results faster,” Karthik Krishnan, global chief executive officer of the Britannica Group said in a press release. “Now more than ever, how we discover information matters.”
Krishnan said that most web searchers stick to the top 5-10 results they get from a search and walk away with an answer that may not be accurate. Even Google algorithms — the complex formulas the search engine uses to rank results for a user search — are not yet sophisticated enough to discern the difference between credible and plausible information, he said. And it’s not just an issue of Google placing the most visited webpages at the top of result pages.
In the book "Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism," released earlier this year, author and communications scholar Safiya Noble maintains Google isn't necessarily focused on giving users the most trustworthy or balanced information. "What shows up on the first page of search is typically highly optimized advertising-related content,” she said. Further, she found a number of search results that reflected the attitudes of the algorithm creators. And that’s exactly the type of bias that Britannica researchers work to avoid.
User-generated content can also be inaccurate. While Wikipedia has been shown to be about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, it is subject to special interest groups editing entries to promote their points of view, as well as by pranksters looking for a laugh. “An answer could be right today and wrong tomorrow because of warring factions trying to slant information to benefit their own agendas,” Krishnan said.
Known as Wikipedia vandalism, it is an ongoing problem despite the website’s initiatives to crack down on inaccurate editing, which include the use of artificial intelligence and a four-stage warning process that results in a user blocked forever from editing.
Encyclopedia Britannica hopes to combat these issues by competing head-to-head with Google for quick sidebar information. You won’t see a Britannica entry for every search you perform. Snippets appear for fact-based terms such as historical events, scientific phenomenon and political figures with links to read more on the Encyclopedia Britannica website. And in some cases, you’ll find links to more in-depth articles, also on the website.
Encyclopedia Britannica offers a portion of its content for free. An all-access subscription costs about $75 per year, but if you have kids in the house, it will likely be a worthwhile investment in today’s world of fake news.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past eight years. She has designed and manages several international websites and now runs the marketing for a global events company. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.