Framed pages from the first ever Encyclopaedia Britannica are displayed on the walls of the publication’s headquarters in Chicago. 
 
  Framed pages from the first ever Encyclopaedia Britannica are displayed on the walls of the publication’s headquarters in Chicago.    - 
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As 2014 comes to a close, the almost 250-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica is taking measure of a 2-year experiment that saw the end of its printed volumes of books and the three-fold audience growth of its Internet-based encyclopedia. 

 

Britannica announced the end of its books in 2012, after a 96 percent fall in the number of books sold from its publishing peak in 1990. The private company, which says it makes a vast majority of its income from educational products for K-12 schools, also began transitioning some of its online encyclopedia content outside of its paywall.

Britannica is aiming for its online encyclopedia to make up as much as 50 percent of its business within three to five years. 

"If you were to find Britannica in the past, you would actually click on the link of Britannica and you would find that... instead of giving you the answer, [the site] was asking you for a credit card number,” says Jorge Cauz, president of Britannica. 

Offering content for free has reduced that obstacle. As much as half of Britannica’s online encyclopedia content now rests outside its paywall, so that online users can find it more easily.

The result: Viewership has tripled. Britannica's site racked up 102 million visitors from January to November this year, compared to 33.5 million visitors for the same period in 2012, according to figures supplied by the company. 

In October, the company achieved a first – more than 1 million page views and has since replicated that feat, according to Tom Panelas, Britannica's director of communications.The company has also seen an increase in the number of paid subscriptions, Cauz says.

The bigger audience means Britannica can generate more revenue from digital advertising, which is Cauz’s goal. 

"The capacity for advertising dollars of our database, it’s about $4.5 to $5.5 billion,” says Cauz, referring to the amount of ad revenue they have calculated that other websites are making with content similar to Britannica’s. 

Cauz says Britannica’s product – professionally written and edited – stands out in a marketplace where one of its main competitors is Wikipedia, the vast online encyclopedia that relies on user-generated and -edited content. 

But Britannica has been adapting some of its content for online audiences, too, with shorter articles, online quizzes and listicles.

John Cunningham, Britannica’s reader’s editor (a kind of ombudsman), says there’s been a cultural shift at the institution. They are paying more attention to what people are searching for online. He gives the example of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappearance last spring.

"We have a lot of coverage of the geography of the region, and people were coming and wanting to find out: OK, where is Malaysia, where is the Indian Ocean, where is that point that they’re talking about on the news?” Cunningham  says. 

The goal is to become a destination for popular Internet search topics by offering relevant, curated content. 

Britannica wants to build its audience up, because of the tough economics of digital advertising. An online display ad costs an average of just $10.87 for every thousand times it is viewed, according to eMarketer.

That means Britannica still has a long way to go to reach Cauz’s goal of capturing some of the billions in ad revenue from reference-related searches.