Betting Against Google’s Answer to Wikipedia

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, 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.

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  • David Gerard says:

    One noticeable thing about the mockup graphic is the prominent Creative Commons CC-by 3.0 logo. This caught our eye at Wikipedia. The point of Wikipedia is not in fact to run a hideously popular (and expensive) website, but to create a body of freely-reusable educational content. So IF, I say IF, Google require Knols to be under a proper free-content licence, then that’ll be a big win for everyone.

    (And if they don’t, they’ll just be another or Yahoo Answers. Or Google Answers – remember Google Answers? I bet Google does.)

  • John says:

    Ha. Getting a little dig in are we? Just kidding. Nice to see the blog evolving.

  • Barry Kort says:

    It’s hard to beat Wikipedia as a compendium of popular culture, since it’s written by a populist community that revels in popular culture.

    But when it comes to scholarly subjects, Wikipedia suffers from a juvenile culture that is hostile to the academic model.

    Authoritative subject matter experts are unwelcome on Wikipedia, where the dominant players eschew conscientious scholarship in favor of drama, controversy, and gaming the system for fun and profit.

  • Dan Colman says:


    I personally haven’t had the same experience with Wikipedia. True, you can find entries on fairly inane topics. But it covers pretty much any area of true scholarly interest, and often the content is quite solid.

    Here I’m reminded of a New York Times article that reported on how Wikipedia compares to Brittanica when dealing with substantive scientific topics. I quote:

    “A study last month in Nature showed that the decision is far from clear-cut. Calling on experts to compare 42 competing entries, the journal counted an average of four errors per article in Wikipedia – and three in Britannica. That is not much of a difference, and a look at the details only adds to the anxiety.”

    A couple other relevant quotes to add:

    “Whatever their shortcomings, neither encyclopedia appears to be as error-prone as one might have inferred from Nature, and if Britannica has an edge in accuracy, Wikipedia seems bound to catch up.”

    “It seems natural that over time, thousands, then millions of inexpert Wikipedians – even with an occasional saboteur in their midst – can produce a better product than a far smaller number of isolated experts ever could.”


  • Carol A says:

    I suppose any communication method which caters to everyone is going to attract some trivial content – think of TV and radio! But at least on the internet you can ignore the rubbish. Wikipedia does seem to provide the better method, but to give Google their due, their book search engine was a joke when it first started, now I find it has evolved into something quite usable. Perhaps they do listen to criticism?

  • Dan Colman says:

    Hi Carol,

    I agree. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Knol evolve and turn into something quite different over time. Google is clearly a bright and responsive company. I was more just responding today to what we see right now.


  • Jon Awbrey says:

    The notion that “a community of writers focusing on the same text will correct one another and improve the overall product over time” or that “the final text becomes greater than the sum of its authors” is sadly out of keeping with the reality of Wikipedia, where articles created by knowledgeable authors are more likely to be degraded over time by hordes of inept users and power-tripping administrators who neither know nor care anything about the subject matters in question.

  • I think Wikipedia and Google Knol can co-exist, and I do not entirely agree with your argument that there will be too few experts willing to write a knol.. there are some incentives (both monetary and reputational) to do it, even for a high-profile expert. Especially because it is Google, and not some unknown startup, a possibly larger audience can be reached.

  • Sniperz11 says:


    I’ve been a regular Wikipedia editor for a year now, and was an anonymous editor for a year before that.. I havent had a chance to see Knol in action, but based on what Google is saying, I have a few observations:

    1. Collaborative page building is FAR FAR better than getting ones name recognized. I’ve built pages together with other editors, sometimes, working live by chatting on IRC and building together. Believe me, the content that comes out of synergy is incomparably better than when done alone.

    Theres another issue with working alone. After some time, boredom sets in, as it usually does when working in a vacuum.

    2. Self-satisfaction trumps attribution: This is another major hole I find in Google’s logic. If you look at Wikipedia, almost half of all the major edits are made by anonymous users, and almost 95% of the 6 million registered users, including me, use a pseudonym to contribute.

    Thats an indication that the contributers are doing it for something more than recognition, which, frankly, no one cares about.

    4. As Jimbo Wales observed, with the Knol, the opportunities for spammers is endless… imagine the number of entries for Viagra one will get.

    5. Ranking: This is another concern – most readers will be drawn to the controversial or blog-like entries, which means that actual good entries will get pushed down in priority.

    6. Community: This is the BIGGEST advantage that Wikipedia has… if you look at any of the over 600 Wikiprojects, which bring together editors to improve pages in their area of interest, there is a feeling of community bonhomie that exists that makes the output work better than when done in an ad-hoc manner. And with the lack of such an organizational setup on Knol, that will be absent. So while content will be huge, quality will most likely be abysmal.

    Overall, I think Google has started Knol just because it sees a commercial opportunity there, and as another means of it wanting to control the Internet.

    The pity of the whole situation is that Wikipedia entries will be engineered down in the Google rankings by changes to their Algorithm. Still, looking at how the Wikipedia Search page gets over 16 million visitors daily, that may not be a big disadvantage.


  • […] in December 2007, I made a bet against Google Knol, the search giant’s answer to Wikipedia. In a fairly involved piece, I listed three reasons […]

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