Sunday, December 16, 2007

Google Knol: More than Just a Wikipedia Play

Certainly Google's announcement regarding its forthcoming Knol article writing service has caused quite a stir in and beyond Silicon Valley as The New York Times, Search Engine Land, Google Blogoscoped, GigaOM and many others try to have a go at scoping out Knol's significance.

In short, Knol will enable people to create encyclopedia-like articles on various topics which can be rated by their readers and have both in-article links to other sources on the Web and automatically generated links to related Knol content. Unlike Wikipedia, there's one author per article, but multiple authors can create articles on the same topic, creating a free-market effect as to who is the leading expert on the topic. Articles will be equipped with Google ads, revenues from which will be shared with the author.

This is quite different in many important aspects from Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia, which in addition to attributing authors only in the history trail on collaboratively edited articles also maintains an ad-free environment for their content. While there are more than passing similarities to Wikipedia in Knol's overall design, the system doesn't seem likely to yield similar results. Knol's emphasis on single authorship without editing means that any particular subject is going to gain popularity based on a particular person's outlook, which may be good one day and quite out of date the next.

So while Knol may help people to get a leg up on what leading experts think about a particular subject - and mind you, that might be great for consultants like us folks at Shore - it's at the mercy of the editing priorities of whomever is maintaining their articles. For fast-changing topics this means that it may take a little bit more work for a reader to figure out who's really at the top of their game on a particular topic - and who's off on holiday for a while. Wikipedia needs constant monitoring to keep powerful people and organizations from trying to add spin to their articles, but at least there's highly active editing of one reasonably definitive version of the facts on a given topic.

While the comparison to Wikipedia is inevitable I see this in many ways as much a play for a wider variety of reference portals. Certainly About.com's docent system has resulted in topic experts who have financial motivations to maintain reference topics well on a wide variety of subjects, and in many ways Knol seems to be aimed at providing more efficient ways for subject matter experts to compete with one another in ways that generate revenues more efficiently than About.com. Knol puts more of an onus on an individual author to keep their information up to date, as others could come up with fresher content first, providing a framework that will help them to focus on content while leaving usability, design and monetization concerns to other. As Google's OpenSocial initiative gains steam one can imagine a person's Knol pages as reference content that can travel with them throughout related social media sites.

This free-market approach to knowledge is intriguing but it highlights a major problem that Google faces. As more and more high-quality user-generated content comes online, many people are finding answers to their questions from leading experts in social media venues that are precluding the need to reference a search engine for answers. As it is, so many topic-oriented searches display Wikipedia articles as the definitive source that in some ways Google has become the default front end for Wikipedia lookups as much as an index of the Web in general, reducing overall ad engagement on Google search results pages - and, in time, fewer searches generated on Google. Fewer searches means less available inventory for Google ads - so keeping more people engaged in Google inventory of some kind becomes an increasingly important goal for Google. So as much as this is a very interesting and useful approach to knowledge development it's overshadowed by commercial considerations that may or may not result in knowledge that people really trust. Collaborative editing has its limits for generating quality reference content, but at some point one's own version of a topic needs to stand up to the challenge of other knowledgeable people.

There are many different ways that Knol could evolve out before it launches, but the key factor would seem to be to provide people with a way to aggregate knowledge effectively. As much as one individual's view of a topic can be useful collaborative editing offers the most certain way to gain insights that are going to provide people with the deepest insight into a given topic. There's still room in such a system to reward individuals - one can imagine a system like Wikinvest in which a collaborative neutral article could be supplemented by opinionated personal articles - but first and foremost one hopes that Google will see that the best system will be one that serves the truth before it serves the bottom line. Knol holds out great promise as a platform that can help individuals to create useful reference content, but it may wind up having to serve too many competing interests to gain much of an impact on the marketplace.
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