By Nate Anderson | Published: December 14, 2007 – 12:06PM CT
Udi Manber, Google’s VP of Engineering, announced just such a plan last night, a program that (in his words) will make it easier for those with knowledge to share it with the world. The system is called “Knol”—which refers to a “knowledge unit”—and it will let anyone create, edit, and profit from creating a page packed with information on a specific topic. In other words, Google doesn’t just want to link Wikipedia, it wants to be Wikipedia.
For a company that got its start by bowing at the Altar of the Algorithm, bringing human-created content in-house is the most recent manifestation of a paradigm shift that has been in the works for the last few years now, one that hasn’t been happening without controversy. With the announcement of Knol, Google is already inviting questions about whether its reach has now extended too far.
Land of the knols
The basic point behind the knol system is to highlight (and provide incentives for) authors—a direct shot at the anonymity of Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 systems that don’t allow experts to stress their own credentials when posting.
Each knol (it’s the name of both the pages and the service) is just a web page hosted by Google. It has a special layout, one generated by Google-supplied tools, that includes content, links, and an author biography.
A sample knol page
Each knol is controlled by the author who creates it. While strong community tools for suggesting changes, making comments, and ranking knols will exist, it’s up to each knol’s author to control the contents of the page.
Google will host the content but will not attempt to edit or verify it, instead trusting that the best knols will naturally rise to the top (a single topic can have multiple knols, each competing for higher placement in Google’s search results.)
Essentially, Google is offering to let people rebuild Wikipedia, and it seems to be targeting two classes of users: 1) experts who may not all feel welcome in Wikipedia, where their actions carry no special weight, and 2) those who aren’t keen on spending their free time contributing to Wikipedia without compensation. While Wikipedia itself is diverse enough to survive, smaller projects like Citizendium could find the going much tougher.
You say you want a revolution? Well…
The Knol project is, in one sense, as nonrevolutionary as they come. Making information pages simple to develop? Ranking those pages? Monetizing those pages? Google itself does all three things already on the web through tools like Blogger, Google Search, and AdSense. Essentially, Google is just rolling out a new set of web page creation tools with a single template to work on.
Google’s professed interest in making it easy for people to put information on this thing called “the Internet” might have rung true in 1998, but that simply can’t be the reason for Knol in 2007. It’s already too easy. Wikipedia makes it simple. So do blogging tools.
Instead, Google wants to mount a direct challenge to various social knowledge sites. Although it won’t have an exclusive license to the content created for Knol, and though it will offer Knol pages to be indexed by all search engines, it’s clear that Google really wants to be in control of a vast, Wikipedia/Citizendium knowledge store. And it can offer something that Wikipedia, et al., cannot: cash.
AdSense and its discontents
The revenue sharing bit is one of the keys to the whole project. Google is going to let authors choose if they want to include Google ads on their knols. The truly altruistic might say no. Most people will say yes.
And that’s where things could get ugly. The lure of filthy lucre is likely to force several changes on the community model of current social knowledge projects. For one, it will break the community-oriented, we’re-all-working-on-this-together spirit of sites like Wikipedia. With Knol, we’re not in this together; we’re in competition. Writing a knol on a popular topic could become a cash cow, as Google promises to split ad revenue with the author.
Many different authors can take a shot at creating a knol on the same topic, which should allow the best pages to claw their way to the top in a sort of survival of the fittest. But the thing about intellectual Darwinism is that it can be vicious, and we expect the same to be true of competition for the top knol spots.
Will Google be the one to police the inevitable claims of plagiarism? Will it do anything when a knol rips off pictures from another knol? What happens when Wikipedia gets ripped off or rewritten? Google is famously loathe to intervene manually, but when the company is creating an ecosystem that rewards individuals and puts so much cash on the table, problems are sure to result.
Maybe Google can be evil
The blogosphere reaction has already been electric. Even those likely to give Google the benefit of the doubt when it comes to not being evil are having second thoughts. What possible reason does the company have for moving beyond indexing and into the hosting and control of this sort of content?
Actually, Google has been making these moves for years. Google Book Search, Google Video, and YouTube are only the highest-profile examples of the way that Google has moved far beyond its roots in pointing people to other places on the ‘Net.
Social knowledge, as exemplified by the high search placement of Wikipedia articles and the growth of sites like Mahalo, has been high-profile for long enough to earn a spot on the Google strategic radar screen. Despite the idealistic sentiments about ease of knowledge production, Knol looks more like an attempt to kneecap various sites that now command a good chunk of Google’s outgoing search result links.
With Google having a vested interest in knols, but also being the main search engine that will index and rank those links, many people already suspect a conflict of interest. While we suspect Google will be careful not to give a special boost to knol results (at the risk of ruining user confidence in its results), others aren’t so sure. At the very least, it will create suspicion.
Om Malik argues that this is just “Google using its page rank system to its own benefit. Think of it this way: Google’s mysterious Page Rank system is what Internet Explorer was to Microsoft in the late 1990s: a way to control the destiny of others.”
TechCrunch wonders if this is “a step too far.” Knol “brings the power of Google into a marketplace that is already rich with competition,” writes Duncan Riley, “and a marketplace where Google can use its might to crush that competition by favoring pages from Knol over others, on what is the world’s most popular search engine.”
And Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land says, “It begins to feel like the knowledge aggregators are going to push out anyone publishing knowledge outside such aggregation systems.”
This can’t be the reaction that Google was hoping for with its announcement, but it may not matter. The naysayers can do their naysaying, but we suspect that the prospect of cash, combined with the competition for top spots in the Knol hierarchy, will lead to plenty of quality content at a rapid clip. Whether that’s a positive development for the web is another question.