Google Knol Prediction Revisited

Back 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 why Knol would­n’t upend Wikipedia. Now fast for­ward 18+ months: Tech Crunch has report­ed that Knol’s traf­fic is trend­ing down. It peaked in Feb­ru­ary at around 320,000 vis­i­tors per month, accord­ing to Quant­cast esti­mates. Now it’s at around 174,000. (See the graph here.) The bot­tom line? You can’t win at every­thing. But for­tu­nate­ly there’s some good new things com­ing out of Google, and we’ll be men­tion­ing them in the com­ing days.

PS In case you did­n’t hear, Wikipedia is start­ing to put edi­to­r­i­al restric­tions on cer­tain entries. The lais­sez-faire days are com­ing to an end.

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Get Wikipedia on Your Mobile Phone

A Life­hack­er post remind­ed me to spread the word about the newish mobile ver­sion of Wikipedia. Sim­ply book­mark this page ( on your wire­less device, and you can then research all of your ques­tions on the fly. When did the French final­ly get rid of Robe­spierre? What’s the gist of Ein­stein’s spe­cial the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty? Where is Bhutan? You can fig­ure it all out wher­ev­er you are.

I’m not sure how this mobile page looks on var­i­ous mobile devices. But I can report that it looks a‑ok on the iPhone. iPhone users can also use the new Wikipedia Mobile app that’s now avail­able in the iTunes store.

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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What Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales, Thinks about Knol, the New Google Competitor

Here is Jim­my Wales, Wikipedi­a’s founder, being inter­viewed after Google debuted Knol. Inter­est­ing that his first thought is that users should copy Knol con­tent and bring it to Wikipedia … :

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Google’s Answer to Wikipedia Now Live

Last Decem­ber, Google announced that it was test­ing a new con­tent ini­tia­tive — dubbed “Knol” — intend­ed to rival Wikipedia. The fruits of their labor are now live (in beta), avail­able for all to see.

As we men­tioned in our ini­tial piece, Knol caters to the indi­vid­ual author/expert, not to the wis­dom of crowds (à la Wikipedia). Each ency­clo­pe­dia entry is gen­er­al­ly writ­ten, edit­ed, and revised by one indi­vid­ual. The author reigns supreme here. But that does­n’t mean that Wikipedi­a’s col­lab­o­ra­tive approach is being entire­ly aban­doned.

Google’s mod­el leaves ample room for col­lab­o­ra­tive writ­ing. It keeps open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that mul­ti­ple authors will write an ency­clo­pe­dia entry. And, they allow for “mod­er­at­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion” — mean­ing that “any read­er can make sug­gest­ed edits to a knol which the author may then choose to accept, reject, or mod­i­fy before these con­tri­bu­tions become vis­i­ble to the pub­lic.” Col­lab­o­ra­tion is built into Google’s mod­el. It’s just not tak­en to an extreme con­clu­sion. (Get more info on the posi­tion­ing of Knol here.)

Knol is not the only con­tent plat­form try­ing to strike a bal­ance between the author and mass col­lab­o­ra­tion. In June, Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca launched a beta of a new online ency­clo­pe­dia that takes “a col­lab­o­ra­tive-but-not-demo­c­ra­t­ic approach” to pro­duc­ing knowl­edge. Users can make con­tri­bu­tions to a grow­ing store­house of knowl­edge. But whether these con­tri­bu­tions get accept­ed remains up to the experts and edi­tors. (“At the new Bri­tan­ni­ca site, we will wel­come and facil­i­tate the increased par­tic­i­pa­tion of our con­trib­u­tors, schol­ars, and reg­u­lar users, but we will con­tin­ue to accept all respon­si­bil­i­ty of what we write under our name. We are not abdi­cat­ing our respon­si­bil­i­ty as pub­lish­ers or bury­ing it under the now-fash­ion­able “wis­dom of the crowds.”)

I have lit­tle doubt that the Google and Bri­tan­ni­ca mod­els will gen­er­ate some sol­id ency­clo­pe­dia entries. That’s a safe bet. But whether these ency­clo­pe­dias will ever become as com­pre­hen­sive as Wikipedia, or as wide­ly used, is anoth­er ques­tion. And the same holds true for whether the con­tent will gen­er­al­ly be qual­i­ta­tive­ly bet­ter than what Wikipedia has to offer. When Google first announced Knol last Decem­ber, I voiced my doubts. Now that the rub­ber is final­ly hit­ting the road, we can see whether my skep­ti­cism is war­rant­ed (or not).

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Encyclopaedia Britannica, Adopting Collaborative Approach, Whispers Uncle

Last week, the ven­er­a­ble Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca gave into the pres­sure cre­at­ed by Wikipedia when it announced that it is tri­alling a new ser­vice (see the beta site here) that will let the pub­lic write and edit arti­cles. The dif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, is that Bri­tan­ni­ca’s mod­el won’t be demo­c­ra­t­ic (not all can par­tic­i­pate) and its edi­to­r­i­al staff will enforce high­er stan­dards. Or, as the announce­ment put it, “we will wel­come and facil­i­tate the increased par­tic­i­pa­tion of our con­trib­u­tors, schol­ars, and reg­u­lar users, but we will con­tin­ue to accept all respon­si­bil­i­ty of what we write under our name. We are not abdi­cat­ing our respon­si­bil­i­ty as pub­lish­ers or bury­ing it under the now-fash­ion­able wis­dom of the crowds.”

This exper­i­ment with col­lab­o­ra­tive author­ing may — or may not — yield a bet­ter ency­clo­pe­dia (although some experts have ques­tioned whether the gen­er­al Bri­tan­ni­ca mod­el has any inher­ent advan­tages). It’s hard to know how things will turn out. But what’s more read­i­ly clear is the speed with which the 240 year-old Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca got out­flanked by Wikipedia, born just sev­en years ago. We have seen this sce­nario played out over and over again. But it nev­er ceas­es to amaze. The tra­di­tion­al insti­tu­tions, just when they seem as per­ma­nent as things can get, sud­den­ly get upend­ed. And, they don’t see it com­ing. Caught flat­foot­ed, they try to adapt, usu­al­ly by adopt­ing the meth­ods used by their com­peti­tor. But it’s most­ly too late, and the real game is over.

Bri­tan­ni­ca may stick around. But will this gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren — or the next — grow up think­ing of Bri­tan­ni­ca as the default research resource? A ques­tion that I’ll leave to you to answer.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.