Will Google's Knol be a force for evil?

Google's new online encylopedia, Knol

If you missed the recent news it appears that Google has gone, in effect, head to head with Wikipedia, but with differences.

These differences are that Google's new online encyclopedia, called KnolGoogle Knol (derived from the phrase "unit of knowledge"), has a focus on authorship (Wikipedia articles are not credited to individuals) and frames the articles with Adsense advertisements thus "monetizing" the service. Moreover authors will get a cut of the revenue.

You can find the blog post by Udi Manber, Google's VP of Engineering, that announced the general availability of Knol here.

The logic behind Google's move is obvious: With Wikipedia having become the pageview generating monster that it is (about 5 per cent of search results link to its articles), and with its grass roots consensus style authorship, the opportunity to create a commercial version of the concept that gives authors ownership and revenue for their work is commercially compelling.

The way editing Knol articles works is, by default, "authorized collaboration" where an author submits an article and anyone can suggest changes, but only the original author can allow those changes to be made. The alternative is "straight collaboration" where a lead author starts an article and specifically invites other people to edit the piece with the same rights she has.

Authors can choose to license their contributions under the Creative Commons Attribution License (the default), the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License, or an "All Rights Reserved" license.

All of the WYSIWYG editing tools are built-in to the Knol user interface, and by some strange marketing quirk even though you can't yet add images or videos to articles (an incredible omission!) you can add cartoons from the archives of The New Yorker!, I find that seriously weird.

Users can search Knol's content directly and as the articles are indexed along with the rest of the Internet, Knol content will turn up in general Google searches. Beyond searching Knol's content, users can also write reviews of articles and rate them.

This brings up the question of whether Google will show favoritism for its own content over Wikipedia or for that matter over any other knowledge repository. It's very early to try to analyze this and the answer is anything but clear so far. You can bet we'll all be watching very closely for indications of evil bias.

So what does Knol mean for the future of Wikipedia? Quite obviously the opportunity for writers to get paid for what they contribute to Knol, that they would otherwise contribute to Wikipedia for free, is going to have an effect.

Knol may also create problems for itself due to Google's page ranking. This will be because highly rated early articles will get more links and therefore higher page ranks. When later and possibly more up to date and or accurate articles are added it will be hard for them to get attention due to the "momentum" of existing related content.

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Essentially with Knol having a commercial bias there will be a tendency for the system to reward popular articles. This will be in much the same way that, say, the music industry enormously rewards a handful of "stars" despite the obvious existence of hundreds of equally or even more talented musicians who are rewarded much less (if at all) by the industry; the system is biased to promote what it knows has been and therefore assumes will be successful.

So will Knol be good or bad? Has Google slipped in to "being evil"? It all depends on where you stand and how you view the issues. Tim O'Reilly commented: "Everyone applauds when Google goes after Microsoft's Office monopoly, seeing it simply as 'turnabout's fair play,' (and a distant underdog to boot), but when they start to go after Web nonprofits like Wikipedia, you see where the ineluctable logic leads. As Google's growth slows, as inevitably it will, it will need to consume more and more of the Web ecosystem, trading against its former suppliers, rather than distributing attention to them. We already take for granted that common searches, such as for weather or stock prices, are satisfied directly on the search screen. Where does that process stop? And much as I support what Google is doing with Google Book Search, I am troubled by the fact that they give preference to their own content repository over digital copies provided by publishers or other aggregators."

The fact is that if Google hadn't done Knol then Yahoo or Microsoft or some other powerful player would most likely have done something similar. Sure, Google was the most well-positioned, but where there's a commercial vacuum there's always something that is ready to fill it.

Knol was a foregone consequence of the market. Now we'll just have to wait and see how well the contributors of Wikipedia hang in there and just how good an idea Knol really is.