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Britannica to debut Web guide

The publishers of the Encyclopedia Britannica next week are launching an Internet Guide for wired info-seekers.

Encyclopedia Britannica is betting that its reputation for aggregating information in its print publication will draw eyeballs to the Britannica Internet Guide when it launches next Tuesday.

This is the latest example of search-driven sites heading in different directions, trying to guess what else visitors to their sites are seeking. Some, such as Yahoo and Excite, are betting that consumers are looking for "one-stop service," and both companies are rapidly striking up content partnerships to offer merchandise and services to their visitors. Encyclopedia Britannica is taking a different tactic, offering filtered information that it thinks users will want.

The free service is designed to steer users to 65,000 sites that fall into 14 subject categories, including: art and literature; health and medicine; news and current events; science, technology, and mathematics; and social science. Britannica has hired 25 subject-area experts to discern which sites will make the cut.

According to Nick Farino, spokesman for Britannica, the site is designed to complement, rather than compete with, Yahoo and Excite. As search engines stray farther and farther from pure information retrieval into electronic commerce, Britannica believes that there is a niche to be filled in a more specific goal: delivering relevant information to Netizens.

The site is aimed at people who want to grab in-depth information in a timely fashion. These are the same people who, in the past, would have bought the Encyclopedia Britannica in print. The Internet may have changed their method of information retrieval, Britannica is betting, but it hasn?t changed their information needs.

"It?s simply a logical progression of what we?ve been doing," Farino said.

Encyclopedia Britannica is the latest example of a print publisher that has had to migrate to the world of computers and the Internet, and the mass distribution it enables, to survive.

The company watched sales of its $1,000 set of print encyclopedias lag before embracing the synergy that exists between reference guides and the world of technology.

According to Farino, the breaking point was in 1990. "Up until then, if you had one or two thousand dollars to spend on your family, you?d buy an encyclopedia. There came a point when that family with one or two thousand dollars to spend would buy a computer."

After slashing prices on the CD-ROM version of the encyclopedia from more than $1,000 to $125, the company published an online version of its encyclopedia in 1994.

Encyclopedia Britannica may be focusing its energy today on its Web guide and CD-ROMs, but the company isn?t about to halt publication of the print version.

Although print may not be "the product of choice" for information-grabbers these days, Farino said, "we don?t think books are going to die."