A new report released by Internet statisticians Nielsen NetRatings contends that educational and reference-oriented sites are experiencing a dramatic increase in traffic, and currently reach nearly one-third of all Web users.
The New York-based research outfit said that educational destinations such as Wikipedia, Yahoo Education and eHow have seen a 22 percent jump in unique impressions since September 2004, and have been accessed by 31 percent of all Internet users.
The company maintains that the boost in activity was driven largely by college-educated Web surfers over 35 years in age who visit the sites seeking information traditionally offered in encyclopedias and other offline reference guides.
According to Nielson NetRatings, the Wikimedia Foundations "open access" encyclopedia site, Wikipedia, built largely through the work of volunteers, saw its traffic grow by a staggering 289 percent, recording nearly 12.8 million hits last month, compared to 3.38 million visits in September 2004.
Yahoo Inc.s education portal saw its traffic climb by 205 percent, tracking over 3.2 million hits last month compared to roughly 1 million visits for the same period last year.
eHow Inc. experienced a 97 percent jump to 2 million hits in Sept. 2005, compared to just over one million the year before.
Other educational sites benefiting from the trend include CollegeBoard.com, City-Data.com and Thesaurus.com.
Overall the educational sector saw its visits grow from just under 38 million in Sept. 2004, to over 46 million last month, according to the report.
Nielsen NetRatingss survey found that 53 percent of the people using the reference sites were college-educated adults aged 35 and older, with adults between the ages of 35 and 49 representing the largest share of visitors at 37 percent.
By comparison, people under the age of 18 years accounted for only 16 percent of the traffic.
Gerry Davidson, analyst with Nielsen NetRatings, said that sites such as Wikipedia that can produce results for queries on a broad set of topics continue to show the most promise, with eHow serving as another example of the breed.
He said that other reference-oriented projects, such as search giant Google Inc.s ongoing Google Print effort, which aims to index many of the books typically found in college libraries, will bring even more attention to the segment.
"We believe that sites that offer a broader range of information will grow faster, and obviously Wikipedia is proving itself to be one of the most widely used resources on the Internet," said Davidson.
"There has also been some graying of the boundaries between education and reference sites, as the people building the resources see that there is a big market for sites that offer information on a wide range of subjects."
While companies including Yahoo, Google and Microsoft Corp.—who has long maintained its MSN Encarta reference site—are already trying to capitalize on the demand for the educational tools, Davidson said that it is likely that even more firms will launch competing offerings in the future.
For its part, the Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is operated on donations from the public.
"People are seeing the traffic and interest increase, so it wont be surprising when even more sites come online that copy the format of the existing leaders," said Davidson.
"But when you see that Encarta didnt even crack the top ten sites in terms of traffic, you begin to understand thats its not an easy space to succeed in."
Other areas of the education technology market are also experiencing significant maturation. On Tuesday, two of the top providers of software to the teaching community, Blackboard Inc. and WebCT Inc., announced a $180 million agreement to merge.
In an instance of growing pains, Google agreed to put off its Google Print site in August while it tries to quell copyright issues raised by groups including the Authors Guild and the Association of American University Presses.
Wikipedias encyclopedia model, which relies volunteers to gather, edit and publish its supply of over 770,400 articles on everything from the Bible to American pop culture has clearly found a home with many users, and it ranks among the 50 most visited sites on the Internet, according to Alexa Internet Inc.
Both the analyst and individuals responsible with running the site agree that it has been the communal nature of the online encyclopedia project that has made it so successful.
"Wikipedia is really in a class of its own right now," Davidson said.
According to Danny Wool, director of grants for Wikimedia, users have responded to the quality of the sites definitions because the collaborative nature of creating the entries leads to better accuracy and relevancy.
"Since the information we are getting is coming from our users, its also expressed more effectively than in traditional encyclopedias, as the language is more easily understandable compared to academic publications," he said.
"People like that this is not some ivory tower pursuit. By letting everyone throw in their own 2 cents, we get a more realistic picture of complex topics."
Another reason Wool believes that users are turning to the Internet to do reference work, rather than to text books, is that Wikipedia is constantly updating its index to reflect new discoveries or news effecting many of its entries.
For instance, each time NASAs Voyager spacecraft studies the area surrounding Jupiter, it discovers new moons of the planet, information on which is added to the Web site.
"What the site truly allows is an environment much like the Greek scholars sitting down to compare all their ideas on a daily basis," said Wool.
"Its an exchange of information that is constantly growing, and changing."