As many now know, Google announced Friday that it’s testing a new content initiative — dubbed “knol” — that it hopes will rival Wikipedia. Realizing that Wikipedia entries rank first on 27% of all Google search result pages, the folks at Googleplex couldn’t resist launching a competitive product. In announcing “knol,” the company highlighted two problems that this new content product will address:
1) “There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share,” but they don’t share that knowledge “because it is not easy enough to do that.”
2) “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.”
How “knol” attempts to solve these problems is fairly straightforward. It will provide experts with user-friendly templates for writing and publishing encyclopedia entries (or “knols”) on the web. And since a picture is apparently worth a thousand words, I recommend that you take a look at a sample screenshot here. Departing from Wikipedia, Google’s project will cater to the individual author, not communities of authors. And it will encourage many encyclopedia entries on the same topic, as opposed to one unified text. Google then assumes that the cream will rise to the top. If 20 people craft “knols” on “string theory,” then the best one — presumably the one that gets the most links from quality sites — will rise highest in the search rankings.
Google’s concept is not altogether bad. But it’s also one of the more ordinary ideas to come out of Mountain View, and I’m guessing that the results will fall short of corporate expectations. Here’s why:
Most fundamentally, the information generated by these “knols” will be substandard compared to what you’ll find on Wikipedia. Although the screenshot provided by Google nicely featured a Stanford University scholar writing on “Insomnia,” the reality is that few experts of this stature will take the time to contribute. Take my word for it. I’ve spent the past five years trying to get scholars from elite universities, including Stanford, to bring their ideas to the outside world, and it’s often not their first priority. They just have too many other things competing for their time. More often than not, Google’s knols will be written by authors with lesser, if not dubious, credentials. The mediocre entries will be many; the great ones, few. And this will leave Google’s content in a weaker position relative to Wikipedia.
To be clear, Wikipedia’s overall talent pool may not be much better. But Wikipedia’s model has an important built-in advantage. A community of writers focusing on the same text will correct one another and improve the overall product over time. The final text becomes greater than the sum of its authors. Meanwhile, Google’s model, which will produce a proliferation of lackluster entries on the same subject, doesn’t include any kind of strong self-correcting mechanism that will improve the entries. The company seems to think that user feedback, name recognition, and a share of ad revenue (which probably won’t amount to much) will do the trick. But that seems like wishful thinking, and I’m basing that on several years of working at About.com, which integrated many of the same elements into its model. Strike one against Google.
If you’re looking for Strikes 2 and 3, let me outline them briefly.
Strike 2 comes down to false premises: When you step back and examine Google’s reasons for creating project “knol,” they don’t hold up to scrutiny. These days, publishing on the web is fairly dummy proof. Free blogging software, Google Page Creator, Yahoo’s Geocities and Wikipedia — these tools have made it incredibly easy to publish to the web. (Somehow, writers have figured out how to post 2,125,453 articles to Wikipedia.) The argument that technology is holding back would-be encyclopedia writers just doesn’t fly. Nor does the notion that we’d get better quality encyclopedia entries if only authors could attach their names to what they write. On the one hand, anonymity hasn’t slowed down Wikipedia at all. On the other, many legitimate experts will see writing “knols” as being a slight step above “vanity” publishing, but not much more. In short, not a good use of their time.
Strike 3 turns on momentum and the lack of game-changing functionality: Not long after YouTube launched and proved the viability of video sharing, Google created its own competitive unit, Google Video. By the next year, Google realized it would never catch up and bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Wikipedia, in comparison, has had a much longer head start. For six years, it has been refining its model, growing traffic, and gaining user loyalty. That’s a substantial and most likely insurmountable lead. True, once upon a time a young Google came out of nowhere and knocked an established Yahoo out of its leadership role. But that happened when Google brought its game-changing search technology to market. With “knol,” however, there’s no such game-changing technology on display — nothing that substantially changes how knowledge gets created. Google and its engineers certainly excel at managing knowledge and produce many great products (for which I’m personally thankful). But getting into the knowledge creation business may pose new challenges, ones that will require the Google staff to go beyond algorithms and thinking in terms of 0s and 1s.