Knol: Ok, It’s Not Wikipedia. But What Is It?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a new piece (where I happen to get a small blurb) on Google’s Knol, asking what it will mean for students and professors. But it also deals, at least indirectly, with another question: Is Knol really intended to compete with Wikipedia?

When the content initiative was first announced, many assumed that this was Google’s way of trying to displace Wikipedia, whose links appear first in Google search results 25% of the time. But the company has since made it clear that they’re not trying to offer another encyclopedia. Rather, they’re simply offering a platform for experts to write about whatever they know. That could include entries on Rationalism, the stuff you’d expect to find in a traditional encyclopedia. But it also includes entries on how to organize your home in 15 minutes or less, or thoughts on whether people really go to heaven when they die. You can browse the range of entries here.

This approach makes Knol at once more expansive than Wikipedia and more difficult to get your arms around. By lacking a focus, Knol is a little slippery. As a reader, you’re not sure what you’ll get at Knol (academic content? recipes? how-to articles? medical information?). And, as a potential writer, you’re not sure what kind of larger body of information you’re contributing to — something that seems important for inspiring mass collaboration. This is not to say that Knol won’t yield a good amount of useful content. It probably will. But will it all hang together, and will it all contribute to another juggernaut Google product? Well, I’m less sure about that. If you disagree, feel free to make your case in the comments below.

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Comments (5)
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  • Jenny Reiswig says:

    I agree with your assessment. I think the sole authorship element is a problem. As I understand it, the model is partly intended to confer the authority that Wikipedia lacks, so that you know there is someone behind each article. But who sets the expertise criteria for ownership of articles? The “authoritative” encyclopedias of the past all had extensive editorial boards that vetted authors and articles. I’ve looked at quite a number of the medical knols in particular, and there are many knols written by doctors but also knols written by lawyers and other business people in what seem to me to be barely-veiled attempts to generate business. There are medical knols that are clearly biased against or in favor of alternative therapies. However, unlike Wikipedia, there is a lack of an obvious structure that lets users easily navigate around to see what other knols exist on related topics. I still don’t quite see where Google thinks this is going to go or how it’s going to work if it does get as large as Wikipedia. I’ll be interested to see what other replies you get.

  • Dan Colman says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I hadn’t really looked at things from this perspective. You’re right. That’s a concern that Google needs to take seriously. The line between knowledge and PR is one that shouldn’t be crossed. And, in fact, Stanford’s medical school just implemented a regulation that prevents corporations (read: medical companies) from contributing money to continuing medical education. Think it happened just last week. Here’s the story:

    Thanks for the thoughts,

  • I for one think that the Knol project is aimed more as a first point online learning platform not just an information source. We start with units of knowledge and from there custom build courseware to as an online learning platform. Once enough critical mass of ‘units’ have been written, a new learning compiler could be placed over the top creating a course using the course author’s preference of units. See my know about the future of education and the place that the knol project will play in it.

  • Jason Shick says:

    I’m wondering what it means for somebody with a blog? I spend a little time submitting articles for websites such as ezine articles, but is Knol similar to ezine or is it a different concept altogether? I’ve only just heard of it today, so I suppose I need to check it out.

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