Google's Knol: No Wikipedia Killer

Funny how people always want to declare whatever Google announces as a [insert name here]-killer. Today, Google's new tool called

Funny how people always want to declare whatever Google announces as a [insert name here]-killer. Today, Google’s new tool called “knol,” which will give people a way to write “authoritative” articles about a particular subject, is supposed to kill Wikipedia. Let’s put aside the fact that almost no Google product besides search has ever killed anything (GoogleBase was supposed to kill eBay and Craigslist, Google Checkout was supposed to kill PayPal, etc.). Fact is, for all its occasional mistakes, Wikipedia remains a valuable resource that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

That's not to say knols aren't interesting, though the tool is invite-only for now, which will clearly limit its appeal. Google VP of engineering Udi Manber describes them in last night's blog post:

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. ... 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.

So knols do have the potential, as Stowe Boyd points out, to add the individual voices to any particular topic that Wikipedia homogenizes through its group-editing system. Just like the best blogs, there's potential value in material with a strong voice, written by someone with intimate knowledge of a subject.

But despite Manber's not-so-oblique references to Wikipedia, it still seems like this is mainly a complement to Wikipedia rather than a competitor. You go to Wikipedia precisely for the "neutral point of view" that is its stated goal (even if it doesn't always achieve that goal). Knols are precisely the opposite: one person's view. The system looks like it will allow other people to contribute, and even to rate the knol, but if I understand correctly, the control of the writing rests solely with the original author. Both approaches have great value, as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out. I can imagine that if Google makes knols work, people will want both, just as they want both the New York Times' and bloggers' views of any particular topic.

Adding an advertising element potentially provides an incentive (though Wikipedia set up a system that produced an incredible amount of valuable knowledge with no monetary incentive, so I don't think that will make the difference in its adoption). Not least, Google's search engine provides a killer distribution channel for knols that human-powered expert/search upstarts such as Mahalo, Squidoo, and even the Times' can't match.

But the level of hyperbole among some bloggers this morning is getting out of hand. Umair Haque thinks it's dead on arrival because Google, while great at creating markets, doesn't have the DNA to be good at creating communities and networks. While Googlers can learn, I think there's something to that. Creating sustainable communities is very hard and requires a careful, ever-changing mixture of proper architecture, judicious cultivation of influential participants, and a certain willingness to just let things happen at the right time. Nothing algorithmic about most of that. "Communities need love, not math," says Haque.

Steve Rubel thinks this will give corporations and PR people a chance to get their views into the public in a way he thinks they can't do on Wikipedia. Great. Seems to me they have all too much opportunity to do this already, and somehow I don't think a Wikipedia-with-corporate-spin is going to go over too well with most people, or even with Google's PageRank algorithm.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, raises a couple of other challenges, including the ever-present potential for spam. But the biggest concern he and others like Duncan Riley at TechCrunch have is that Google in a sense is creating--if not owning--a potentially huge body of content that it will have an incentive to favor in search results over other links:

The traffic that Wikipedia gets from Google has inspired others. Yahoo Answers pages show up in Google for topics; Mahalo would love to rank for top terms -- and I've already mentioned Squidoo's presence in search results. Now Google gets into the picture to have its own hosted content compete for the dwindling diversity of results on the search results page. It begins to feel like the knowledge aggregators are going to push out anyone publishing knowledge outside such aggregation systems.

In other words, as John Battelle asks, is Google moving too far in the direction of becoming a media company, with content it overtly participates in creating, not just pointing to? It's a line Google has been flirting with for some time, starting with its YouTube acquisition. I'm not sure I can tell yet. Is this significantly different from giving people a blog through its Blogger unit?

For now, though, both the potential and the challenges seem to be coming way in advance of the reality.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.