EBGal reports that the Britannica Firefox plugin that I wrote about a few days ago is actually 18 months old. Clearly I’m behind the curve, though I’m not sure how easy these things are to find. “I guess we need to do a better job promoting that sort of thing,” she writes.

Unfortunately, there have been a couple cool little apps that Britannica has created, but which never got good press. Not long after eBlast (of blessed memory) got off the ground, there appeared a little app that consisted of: a search box. You typed in a query, it performed a search against the Britannica database, and it opened a browser window with the results. It may even have sat on the Windows icon bar, always available.

It was totally brilliant, a widget before there were widgets. It was simple, accessible, and made accessing Britannica amazingly simple. And it withered.

The moral of the story isn’t just that Britannica has been better at dreaming up apps than leveraging them. This kind of thing matters because making your content easy to search is now one big key– perhaps the biggest key– to getting people to use it. This was driven home to me when I sat in on Geoff Nunberg and Paul Duguid’s class at Berkeley this past fall, and we were talking about why students used Wikipedia rather than Britannica. A bunch of them admitted that it was just easier to query Wikipedia because they didn’t have to surf to it, or deal with logins: eliminating one or two clicks meant a lot to them. (They also had various rationalizations for why the cultural authority of peer review was dead, etc.)

And these weren’t technological illiterates, either: they were Ph.D. students in information science, computer science, and psychology. Very savvy kids.

That’s why getting a Firefox search plugin may look like a little thing (and is, in terms of development time), but is very big. In this kind of world, you can’t assume that people will find their way to you, or that a little bit of typing won’t make the difference between choosing you, and choosing a competitor.

Though perhaps the moral of the eBlast search widget story should be that Britannica has been better at dreaming up apps than leveraging them. Turns out there’s an app called Refmaker which generates URLs to Britannica articles. It’s another completely under-the-radar object: I Google “britannica+refmaker,” and find one blog post about it. It’s not on the tools page, though technically it’s not really a search tool; however, it should be mentioned somewhere on the Britannica site.

My worry is that this kind of institutional silence reflects an organizational confusion about how to classify and market such tools; and usually, organizations don’t do a very good job of capitalizing on things that confuse them.

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