Clash of the Dictionaries: Merriam Webster’s vs. Dictionary of Definitions

By | April 29, 2007

There are many different dictionaries online, I’m sure that you are probably addicted to at least one of them. I won’t list all the dictionaries here, but I’d like to compare two dictionaries to contrast their style and presentation.

The two dictionaries I chose are: Merriam Webser’s Online dictionary and the online dictionary of definitions . Originally, I wrote a review of the latter one, but I got to wondering about how useful these two dictionaries really are. In this test, I compared the two dictionaries websites and content on one word only: proletariat.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

merriamMerriam’s is the veteran of the published dictionary here, tracing its history all the way back to Noah Webster’s original dictionaries nearly 200 years ago (see the timeline). So, naturally, the portal type arrangement of the website links heavily to the published dictionaries, and to more modern offerings like CDs and subscriptions to the online versions.

Merriam’s has a lot of depth to the website, with a Thesaurus and a Spanish dictionary included. Additional dictionaries are in fact available only to subscribers. There is also a Word of the Day section, Word Games, and an “Open” Dictionary (a kind of sop to Wikipedia, no doubt). Customer based newsletters are used to get sign ups to the online newsletters, and at some point in the future, to the services. But for basic searches, ‘free’ is just fine! So, to find a key word here, you need to simply enter the word in the box in the center of the page. And the definitions will come out.


Problems in the design are quite obvious: it’s too cluttered really, in places the design is inconsistent (esp. when visiting related websites – the base colors remain the same, but the navigation completely changes); navigation tools are effective for the most part on the main site; and the definitions are fairly concise, but effective. Google Ads append the definition, and are mostly well blended (a little too well?!). Definitions are also fairly detailed, including pronunciation guide, audio link, etymology and links to other words related in meaning.

Let’s look at the definitions now for a comparison there, too. Our test word appeared here in the middle of a rather busy page. So I excised the definition for analysis. I won’t comment on the meaning or accuracy as I’m not an etymologist. However, Merriams provides ample help on how to pronounce the word, its root and root meaning, and several shades of meaning for the word. Overall, I come away with a sense that I understand what this word means. For learners, though, perhaps an example sentence would be a nice touch, too.

Online Dictionary of Definitions


I first reviewed Dictionary of Definitions as a paid review for Payperpost. Now, though, I decided to come back and compare their website with a ‘proper’ dictionary website.

The website design takes several leaves from Google’s rather spartan appearance. With over 230,000 words in its database, it’s no mini-dictionary either. The focus of this website is rather different: to provide the definition quickly and without much fuss or frills as it claims:

The Dictionary of Definitions is superior to many others because of its clean and visually appealing interface, as compared with other Internet dictionaries which are cluttered with invasive advertisements and pop-ups. (Dictionary of Definitions)

Now, in my book, simplicity is good, and is likely to make a repeat user for me, for one. Its history is interesting, too. Actually, Dictionary of Definitions started off in 1997, well before the Dot Com Era, and was one of the first to come online and combining Webster’s synonym dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus ! Somehow it survived, even though offline (anyone know more?) for a while, and came back recently. It cites its own advantages as including 33 major sources with a range of topics. Later, Spanish, French and Latin dictionaries are promised.

proletariat-onlineTime to look at its definition of our chosen word: proletariat. We note that the simplicity of the design here is really a minimal amount of information. There is no guide on pronunciation, no derivation, no secondary meaning…

On the plus side, I noted that the website adds a thesaurus definition could be useful, as well as antonyms. Merriam’s inclusion of the etymology is perhaps overkill for a simple dictionary, but one would have thought a pronunciation guide, and subsidiary definitions would be essential if you want this website to be taken seriously.

Lessons to take away

If you have your own website, what can you learn from this comparison? Perhaps several things: design works, ad placement, meeting expectations, building community, and so on.

Simplicity: Sometimes on the Internet less is more. If you want to use a website as a supplement to your work, the website design has to be less fussy and more focused on the key issues. Merriam’s website does provide the information you want, and plenty of it; but the links, the additional material, the flashing ads, etc. all beckon busy users to be sidetracked from what they are doing. It’s too easy to find yourself looking at the shop rather than getting on with the reason you needed to look up the word in the first place.

Google Ads: Google Ad placements in both sites are unobtrusive, which is good for the user, but bad for the owner of the website. In addition, in Merriam’s Google Ads compete with network ads and website ads for attention, perhaps diluting the effect. Their placement won’t help too much either, as the ads are shown in the bottom right and bottom center. It’s not likely that many click-thru’s will happen as users will move away from the site after they read their definition. Placement needs to be higher for more effective click-thru’s. In Merriam’s, they need to be before or after the target word. DoD is the same in this respect. Ads are placed well below the fold, making them less likely to be seen.

Building Community and Connection: Many websites find various ways to build these qualities into their websites, by adding newsletters, feeds, daily content (word of the day, etc.), downloads, open access areas (like Wikis), etc. Merriam’s has almost all of these elements, plus a good handful. DoD has none, but I’m not sure that this aspect of DoD’s simplicity is good.

Most importantly, Visitors’ Expectations: MW’s answer more than meets what most visitors are looking for: something approximating a dictionary that they are familiar with in print form, in depth, and in accuracy. BUT Dictionary of Definitions falls quite short in this respect, as already noted. If you want to create recurring traffic, you have to give your visitors a reason to come back, search and click on content or ads. DoD significantly fails this test, and by a large margin. Other searches of words also reflected fewer meanings and definitions.

So if you are building your own website, you may wish to visit both of these websites, and consider carefully what you like or dislike. Be sure, though, that you find out and meet your visitors’ expectations. That way you can effectively build traffic, trust, and your website.

Update: Dictionary of Definitions is no longer an active site, links have been removed and replaced with links to the archived version of the site.

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