Google's Knol: No Wikipedia Killer

Posted by: Rob Hof on December 14, 2007

Funny how people always want to declare whatever Google announces as a [insert name here]-killer. Today, Google’s new tool called “knol,” which will give people a way to write “authoritative” articles about a particular subject, is supposed to kill Wikipedia. Let’s put aside the fact that almost no Google product besides search has ever killed anything (GoogleBase was supposed to kill eBay and Craigslist, Google Checkout was supposed to kill PayPal, etc.). Fact is, for all its occasional mistakes, Wikipedia remains a valuable resource that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

That's not to say knols aren't interesting, though the tool is invite-only for now, which will clearly limit its appeal. Google VP of engineering Udi Manber describes them in last night's blog post:

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. ...
The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content.

So knols do have the potential, as Stowe Boyd points out, to add the individual voices to any particular topic that Wikipedia homogenizes through its group-editing system. Just like the best blogs, there's potential value in material with a strong voice, written by someone with intimate knowledge of a subject.

But despite Manber's not-so-oblique references to Wikipedia, it still seems like this is mainly a complement to Wikipedia rather than a competitor. You go to Wikipedia precisely for the "neutral point of view" that is its stated goal (even if it doesn't always achieve that goal). Knols are precisely the opposite: one person's view. The system looks like it will allow other people to contribute, and even to rate the knol, but if I understand correctly, the control of the writing rests solely with the original author. Both approaches have great value, as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out. I can imagine that if Google makes knols work, people will want both, just as they want both the New York Times' and bloggers' views of any particular topic.

Adding an advertising element potentially provides an incentive (though Wikipedia set up a system that produced an incredible amount of valuable knowledge with no monetary incentive, so I don't think that will make the difference in its adoption). Not least, Google's search engine provides a killer distribution channel for knols that human-powered expert/search upstarts such as Mahalo, Squidoo, and even the Times' About.com can't match.

But the level of hyperbole among some bloggers this morning is getting out of hand. Umair Haque thinks it's dead on arrival because Google, while great at creating markets, doesn't have the DNA to be good at creating communities and networks. While Googlers can learn, I think there's something to that. Creating sustainable communities is very hard and requires a careful, ever-changing mixture of proper architecture, judicious cultivation of influential participants, and a certain willingness to just let things happen at the right time. Nothing algorithmic about most of that. "Communities need love, not math," says Haque.

Steve Rubel thinks this will give corporations and PR people a chance to get their views into the public in a way he thinks they can't do on Wikipedia. Great. Seems to me they have all too much opportunity to do this already, and somehow I don't think a Wikipedia-with-corporate-spin is going to go over too well with most people, or even with Google's PageRank algorithm.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, raises a couple of other challenges, including the ever-present potential for spam. But the biggest concern he and others like Duncan Riley at TechCrunch have is that Google in a sense is creating--if not owning--a potentially huge body of content that it will have an incentive to favor in search results over other links:

The traffic that Wikipedia gets from Google has inspired others. Yahoo Answers pages show up in Google for topics; Mahalo would love to rank for top terms -- and I've already mentioned Squidoo's presence in search results. Now Google gets into the picture to have its own hosted content compete for the dwindling diversity of results on the search results page. It begins to feel like the knowledge aggregators are going to push out anyone publishing knowledge outside such aggregation systems.

In other words, as John Battelle asks, is Google moving too far in the direction of becoming a media company, with content it overtly participates in creating, not just pointing to? It's a line Google has been flirting with for some time, starting with its YouTube acquisition. I'm not sure I can tell yet. Is this significantly different from giving people a blog through its Blogger unit?

For now, though, both the potential and the challenges seem to be coming way in advance of the reality.

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Reader Comments

KnellNilKnolNull

December 14, 2007 01:22 PM

we've always had biased authors. no big deal about Knol.

Brandon W

December 14, 2007 02:17 PM

Google always shows up to the party; sometimes they're even the first to the party. But they're rarely the best-dressed or most-charming once the party is underway. And when you're at a good party, do you want to hang with the best-looking, the most-charming, or the know-it-all blabbing in the corner?

Wango

December 14, 2007 05:19 PM

>> "for all its occasional mistakes, Wikipedia remains a valuable resource that isn’t going to go away anytime soon."

What planet are you on? Wikipedia is a well-known cesspool of undocumented sources, opinion passing as fact and misinformation. "Anyone" can edit it, unless their Big Brother software "catches" and outs people or agencies that offer perspectives different than those held by the often biased Wikipedia editors.

The big lie of our century is the Wikipedia notion of "Neutral Point of View." All talk, no walk. Google it, and you'll find self-respecting universities don't allow Wikipedia as a resource. and many high schools too.

Wikipedia is a snake-pit and it deserves competition.

Rob Hof

December 14, 2007 05:27 PM

Wango: Planet Earth, where most people don't expect everything on the Net to be perfect and seem to treat Wikipedia as what it is: one source, not a bible.

Blake Gray

December 14, 2007 07:17 PM

Exactly Rob,if Knol can prove to be a source respected by universities and high schools it will offer a key service to students. It is mainly students who use wikipedia, so that's the demographic they are playing too.

Josizzle

December 14, 2007 09:17 PM

Not sure that Uni. and HS respect is the measure of acceptability. The truth of the matter is Knoll stands a chance to be more acceptable because it could be a more user-friendly Lexus-Nexus, or other article trolling repository. Hell, my schools didn't even allow encyclopedia's and considered dictionary references (beyond the OED) to be quaint asides. It seems that they're doing something fairly logical in the progress of information dissemination. When a new medium appears, people merely clamour for content due to the novelty, but, as the medium becomes more widely used and trusted, the genesis of that content comes into question. Note the fact that "author" and "playwright" etc. weren't considered important bits of knowledge until the Printing Press allowed tremendous numbers of a work to be sent out.

Sankar Ramu

December 14, 2007 11:20 PM

Google is trying to be on the news to keep up the stock value rather than doing really good service. It has many internet services but almost everything is still in BETA. That proves their business model and their confidence level on their service. Nothing will happen to Wikipedia.

Wango

December 14, 2007 11:41 PM

Rob Hof: "most people don't expect everything on the Net to be perfect."

Rob, you could not have articulated the problem any better, and I agree totally.

But many of us are not so concerned about perfection as we are about integrity. In that regard, Wikipedia get very low marks.

A resource like Wikipedia must be held to a high standard. Junk information is as good as no information at all, and hopefully Wikipedia will fade or become responsible with competition from Knol or others.

MikeReardon

December 14, 2007 11:58 PM

First day and everyone sees Knols subjects will need directories on its subjects. Its cool that search aggregators like Mahalo and all the other are trying to claim a piece of the action. First day and its is a race to be the best gadget or mash-up to present content from Knol. So will Google buy it, or will it be a web wide OpenSourceApi.

Tim Cunningham

December 15, 2007 08:54 AM

I like the comment above about the party analogy. Google and Egglepple/Starbureiy seem to be the prettiest, but where's the partnership going? A free app from the likes of Zoho (Zoho Noter) probably can do the same thing with appropriate confidentiality. Can't knock Google for potentially letting editors make money, though.

Rob Hof

December 15, 2007 02:21 PM

Wango: I agree, Wikipedia more than ever needs to be held to a high standard and if knols push it further in that direction, that will be a good thing.

Josh

December 15, 2007 10:45 PM

I think it would be fair to say that Google Earth has done the equivalent of "killing" the satellite industry.

Brian Prows

December 16, 2007 12:19 AM

Global dominance by Google is just beginning. For a fictional--but highly probable--view of the future, check out my blog post on MarketingBeyond: "Google News Release: Knolling & Googling Compliance Requirements."
http://marketingbeyond.typepad.com/marketingbeyond/2007/12/google-news-rel.html

wikinomore

December 16, 2007 01:09 PM

Wikipedia is ruled by a bunch of dictators. If they don't like what you post, no matter how much you write or how little, they take it down.

Wiki is not a democratic writing platform. People are angry. I'd be more than happy to go over to KNOL

Sachin G

December 16, 2007 01:38 PM

Huhh.....not surprised with so called 'Killer bla bla...', it's always good to have an alternative...just as a risk mitigation...or say may be to avoid a monopoly in future...just as microsoft always does, they will have their own OS, they will have the tools to develop programs, they will have their own softwares etc etc...google is on the same way....but that is dangerous...google as a search engine is great! no doubt about it and it's good that it is coming up with so many new things ( sometimes just replica's of something existing)...that's competitive...let's see how it goes in future...

Yaco

December 16, 2007 02:19 PM

"The big lie of our century is the Wikipedia notion of "Neutral Point of View." All talk, no walk...".

Wikipedia is a tool. It is a web-based rersource to be treated as such. It ahs never claimed to be as trustworthy as say, Britanica, but rather as an encyclopedia so diverse and open it can have little known facts about known subjects as well as additional info on subjects that would, on traditional media, be closed. to keep this self-sustaining, public community based model, some things have to be given up, just as google will have to do to launch its own version of things. And I am in a self respecting university, where wikipedia is A) a valuable resource for a certain RANGE of necessities, and B)not suited for others. Period. Instead of "neutral point of view" try "has the potential to include many voices/resources and to be collectively corrected".

So hope that the "Big lie of ourcentury" is not fooling that many people, because I really hope there aren't that many people considering Wikipedia as the best (and only) source of god-given information.

tom

December 16, 2007 05:19 PM

If content is to be respected and written by respected persons of authority, is there to be a financial gain to the authors? If not i think it would be difficult to make this appeal to the people that are qualified to write the information, in which case you would end up with "Wikipedia" again. Does anybody know how the information is gathered or how contributors are targeted and rewarded if at all? Personally if i had written a book then i would rather sell the book and earn what i can from it than give it away for free where all can see and probably reuse without royalty's being incurred.

IthacaMatt

December 16, 2007 08:06 PM

Wikipedia is a great place to get started on research, or to surface potential sides to an issue. It's up to you to go look up what the sources say, and make up your own mind. To accept any one point of view blindly is never a good idea, and that applies to the media in all forms.

Vic

December 18, 2007 01:59 AM

I am actually really looking forward to Knol if anyone has checked out the screenshot I think it is designed very well visually. Not only that but I am completely for as many free information sources as possible. If nothing else, Knol will give us another good source of information. You can keep up with a lot of the Knol debate at http://www.knoldigest.com

Daan

December 19, 2007 10:04 AM

I think Knoll will strand. People will not accept the authority of one author of an article, expert or not. This will lead to a small amount of editors and authors and thus with a small encyclopedia.

For those who want to change Wikipedia. Try it on Wikipedia itself. The quality of Wikipedia could be enhanced by writing essays linked to an article, for instance. This way, competing views can be demonstrated on their own merits.

Avinash

December 27, 2007 12:25 PM

Wikipeida should provide an easy-to-use editor, like WYSIWYG editor asap, similar to what Google does

Wrote to Wikipedia: Dear Wikipedia, Can you please have a WYSIWYG editor, like Google Docs/Pages provides ? Editing using your current editor and results in all kinds of funny-language coming up in the text, it is VERY tedious and with Google Knol, it will be very easy to do such changes and will lead to its success too. Please take this up at HIGH priority.
From http://people20.blogspot.com/2007/12/wikipeida-should-provide-easy-to-use.html

Dan

December 28, 2007 06:52 AM

People who say that say wikipedia isn't accurate 100% are right.. but you shouldn't just take what read for fact.. you should be smart enough to look at their sources and check them. You should be doing this with ANY page that you read. Stop being so naive.

N

January 7, 2008 08:14 AM

Nothing is 100% right, with exception of math. This means that no amount of authority will help to counter this problem.

Jason Moore

January 8, 2008 12:15 AM

Actually, "knol" was just the codename for this project.

According to some sources, the actual name is "Unipedia"

Sounds like a better name than "knol".

I quite like the idea that Unipedia will share revenue of any ads with the authors.

R. W. Watkins

January 9, 2008 07:17 PM

Wikipedia should receive 'recognition' for holding porn stars, soap opera characters, and degrading sexual acts (e.g., 'bukkake') in higher esteem than philosophers, painters and us 'lowly' poets. In reality, Wikipedia is nothing more than a small circle of sensationalism-worshipping overgrown children giving precedence to the whims and follies of a much larger circle of uncultured children for the sake of helpless children who always will be children.

More power to Google's Knol project; from where I stand, it sounds like a long overdue undertaking.

A.S.

January 22, 2008 07:53 PM

Actually to whomever claimed that "self-respecting universities" and high-schools do not allow Wikipedia as a source, this is only strictly true for research papers.

At Harvard it is fairly common for some courses to even list Wikipedia articles in the syllabus, if the object is merely general familiarity and the likelihood of bias is negligible. Articles about holidays or customs, for example, have been assigned without issue.

Teachers and professors that are truly looking out for the welfare of students will know the difference between heavy-handed academic elitism and using resources properly.

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