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Google Knol: The “Grassy Knoll” for Publishers or Just Wikipedia?
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Posted On January 7, 2008
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Google-watching seems to have become the fastest growing international sport. In mid-December, an announcement by Udi Manber, vice president of engineering at Google, opened another tournament round. Manber disclosed that Google was developing a new free tool called "Knol" (rhymes with "mole" or "knoll"). Knol refers to a "unit of knowledge." Mainstream press and leading blogs immediately saw Knol as the launch of a Google offensive against Wikipedia, perhaps based on the look and feel of the Knol model display, an encyclopedia-style article on insomnia by a female relative of Manber’s (www.google.com/help/knol_screenshot.html). However, a closer look at the model and a closer read of Manber’s announcement (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/12/encouraging-people-to-contribute.html) indicates an author-centric orientation that would better fit a strategy of building Google into a powerhouse publisher, possibly integrating with Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Custom Search Engine, and even Google Base.

At first glance, Manber’s title for the announcement—"Encouraging people to contribute knowledge"—would seem to fit with the "wisdom of the crowd" strategy behind Wikipedia and other user-based services. However, the "Insomnia" illustration of the concept behind Knol is clearly author-centric. It even carries a picture of the author. A knol does allow contributions from readers, but they are clearly labeled and sidebarred. Rather than encourage multiple contributors to evolve a complete article in virtual anonymity as Wikipedia does (for an excellent example of this process, see Wikipedia’s own coverage of Knol at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Knol), the Knol project encourages readers to write their own articles. Multiple authors may write an article, but it must be an organized collaboration, perhaps one with a group photo of the smiling authors. [Note: On Monday, Jan. 7, Wikia, Inc. (www.wikia.com) publicly launched its own Wikia search service (http://search.wikia.com/wiki/Search_Wikia) that taps into a community of experts to rank search results and filter content. The cover story by Woody Evans for Searcher magazine’s January issue—"Embryonic Web 3.0: Universal Search, Wikia, and the Birth of User-Generated Search"—describes the new effort. —Ed.]

Overall, the tool seems designed to help people with little knowledge of how to create a website for their work—and even less interest in learning—to follow simple but attractive templates. Manber states, "The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors … We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content. At the heart, a knol is just a web page … It is well-organized, nicely presented, and has a distinct look and feel, but it is still just a web page. Google will provide easy-to-use tools for writing, editing, and so on, and it will provide free hosting of the content. Writers only need to write; we’ll do the rest."

At present, Knol participation is by invitation only, and it focuses on providing solid instructional pieces. A Google representative indicated that it might be months before the company opens it up or makes an official public announcement. For this first round of knol development, Manber wants a wide range of knols on any and every topic that will "be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read." And there we can see the competition issue with Wikipedia. But Manber adds that all the editing and control, including the option to insert ads, will rest with the authors. Rather than one authoritative article growing out of multiple contributions, however, and despite the option for readers to submit comments, questions, edits, and additional content such as links and references, as well as ratings and reviews, Manber expects, "For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing." He admits that once knol participation becomes "completely open … we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality." However, he expects that Google will rise to the challenge of ranking knols appropriately within Google search results. Gallant as always, Google will open all the knol content to any other search engine. That way other search engines can send users off to read knols on Google.

Disruptions Ahead?

Steve Arnold (www.arnoldit.com), a "Pro Bowl Google Watcher" and author of Google Version 2.0: The Calculating Predator (Infonortics ebook, October 2007), looks on Knol as just another round in Google’s march toward disrupting a variety of marketplaces with its superior technology and massive user base. In an interview with Paula J. Hane published in the January 2008 issue of Information Today (www.infotoday.com/IT/jan08/Hane.shtml), Arnold identified six potential target markets for Google disruptions. One of them was publishing. Arnold stated that "the company’s activity in publishing-related research has been underway continually since 2001," with an intensive ramp-up throughout 2007.

When I spoke with Arnold, he commented that Knol was just the tip of the iceberg for publishing. "It’s just a logical evolution of what Google is up to." He did not consider Wikipedia as a prime target. Instead, he thought that Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia might just get caught in the blast of Google’s typical nuclear explosion. The Wikipedia issue is just a distraction, a misdirection, according to Arnold. He considered Knol just an application in "Google’s great big universe." "It makes sense to start there, but that’s not where it will stop. Google will start at a point that gets traffic and, if it catches on, it can expand into other things, such as scholarly publishing and book publishing."

Arnold also predicted that Knol might work well with Google Base (http://base.google.com). Google Base came out late in 2005, touted as a competitor to eBay. It allows people to post online and offline information for sale or distribution and to assign attributes to make them more searchable. One category mentioned on the homepage for Google Base even identifies "reference articles," though most of the content retrieved under that category seems to be prior art patent searches. Google Base has not proved to be an outstanding success, but it could just be a matter of time and content. Arnold thinks that Google Base could solve the other side of the publishing process, namely how to sell and distribute content in bulk. "Put them together [Knol and Google Base] and you have a womb-to-tomb publishing platform," said Arnold.


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Email Barbara Quint

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Woody Evans1/10/2008 1:50:25 PM

After interviewing Jimmy Wales this week about Search Wikia, I had to take the opportunity to ask about Knol, too.

Wales sees three reasons why there is no competition between Knol and Wikipedia. First, Knol is primarily about individuals making and refining individual articles. Wikipedia is about community authoring and editing. Second, Wales says Knol will have be a "review-based" system, where readers rate the article. Wikipedia has no review system, but rather allows contributors to make any needed changes directly. Knol is a revenue generating endeavor, finally, and that could raise "incentive questions" about an author's articles. Wikipedia is free (as in beer, and free as in freedom), so there is no cash impetus to contribute to anything.

Although Wales probably sees Wikipedia (and other Wikimedia projects) as more "pure" than what he expects Knol to be, Wikipedia doesn't get off completely free on questions of author motives. There are plenty of examples (notably in politics) of authors altering Wikipedia entries to affect public perception of past events. Cash is not the only motivation for putting quality, truth, or objectivity to the side. Information is sometimes valuable as information. But at least in the case of Wikipedia, all edits, usernames and IP addresses are there for the world to see -- even if the community's motives are not.
Posted By Bob Buntrock1/7/2008 7:56:12 PM

Per Arte Johnson, Verrry interesting! However, I find the comparison to "mole" (presumably the chemist's mole) a bit trite and way too cute.

And just what is a "unit of knowledge" anyway? I've presented (and even published) several times on the topic of the "information continuum/spectrum". It's not original with me, but it makes sense. Information, in the broadest sense, ranges from numbers (with no units or attributions), data (numbers with attributions), information (probably at the sentence/paragraph/article level), knowledge (info considerably more processed, collections of articles or well thought out books), and finally, wisdom, which we should all be striving for but probably never reach.

Just as I thought IBM was presumptuous 30-40 years ago calling their databases and database systems (with nothing more than data), "information systems", I think that "knowledge base" is overused even now, and most likely by Google Knol.

Furthermore, their allusion to wisdom ("wisdom of the masses") is an even bigger laugh. All open publishing systems are prone to dubious quality, which they acknowledge for GK, but do they really think Google ranking will accurately indicate/evaluate quality? LOL again.

Even Wikipedia gets slammed by many academics. Many teachers (unwisely, I think) won't accept WikiP references in student papers. More enlightened ones acknowledge it's a great place to go first but will only allow the secondary references, no primary WikiP citations. How much better does GK expect to fare?

May we live in interesting times ...

-- Bob Buntrock

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