« The techno-utility complex | Main | Dominating the cloud »

Google Knol takes aim at Wikipedia

December 13, 2007

Big news out of the Googleplex tonight: Google is launching what appears to be a head-on competitor to Wikipedia. The company has begun beta-testing a tool, called Knol (short for "knowledge"), that will allow people to create articles about particular subjects and post them on a set of specialized web pages hosted by Google. Each article, according to Google engineer Udi Manber, "is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read." That, obviously, perfectly describes what Wikipedia pages have become for a huge number of web searchers.

The big distinction with Wikipedia is that Knol relies on individual authors rather than "the crowd." Each article, or "knol," will be signed and owned by the person who writes it, and articles on the same subject will compete with one another for viewer's eyes. In contrast, Wikipedia builds a single version of each article in a communal way with many edits by anonymous contributors.

Writes Google's Manber:

The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing. Knols will include strong community tools. People will be able to submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so on. Anyone will be able to rate a knol or write a review of it. Knols will also include references and links to additional information

As the ad-free Wikipedia has risen to dominate the results for many common searches, it has become a de facto competitor for Google (while also being a source of content for Google services like Google Earth). Now, the competition between the two web giants promises to become much more explicit. The success of Knol is, of course, far from assured, but the ability of authors to sign their names, take ownership of their work, and compete with other authors may well be a lure for many people. And, of course, Google is pitching the advertising angle: "At the discretion of the author, a knol may include ads. If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads." In contrast to Wikipedia's pure "social production" model, contributors may be able to make a few bucks by writing knols - while also contributing a fresh revenue stream to Google.

For the past year, Chief Wikipedian Jimmy Wales has been doing a lot of trash-talking about taking on Google in the search business. Now Google's striking back.


This won't be as successful as wikipedia because it doesn't cater to the long-tail editors.

For instance, I'm what you would call a casual wikipedia editor. Every now and then I'll be reading a wikipedia article about something I actually know something about, and if I see an error or I have a quick sentence to add, I add it. This separates me from the hard-core wikipedians who create entries from scratch and contribute to them heavily. I would argue, though, that the long tail editors are just as important.

With Knol, only the hard-core editors will contribute, while people like me, who don't really have any interest in putting a lot of work into the entry, won't be able to contribute at all.

Posted by: Simon Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2007 11:14 PM

Simon, As noted in the quote above, you will be able to submit edits to the authors of articles, though it will (apparently) be up to the authors to decide whether to accept them or not. You're right, though; it's a different editorial model and may not be as attractive to the casual contributor. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2007 11:17 PM

I'm not sure this is Google taking on Wikipedia as much as it is Google taking on Yahoo, about.com, etc. The dichotomy between authored vs. generated search companies falls.

They should be offering a lot more than ad revenue, though. For only ad revenue, they should only take on a very limited set of permissions from authors -- just enough to implement the service as the author understands it at that time. Otherwise, they are aiming to steal the aggregate.


Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2007 11:19 PM

"The goal is for knols to cover all topics [and] to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read."

I don't know, Tom. Sounds like a Wikipedia substitute to me.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2007 11:25 PM

I wonder what the copyright status of these knols will be. Will they have a similar problem to YouTube with lots of people uploading copyrighted material. The wikipedia community is very attentive to copyright and fair use.

Posted by: Charlie [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 13, 2007 11:27 PM

About.com and Wikipedia are both well visited sites - suggesting there is room for both the models (single expert vs. collaboratively created content).

Wikipedia has reached a critical mass of content - not something easy to establish overnight. As far as GooG is concerned - anyone remember Froogle? Gmail? Orkut?
Happy Holidays

-Raj Razdan

Posted by: Raj [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 12:59 AM

1) Sounds like Squidoo (Seth Godin's Lens idea).

2) I find it funny that Google pitches knols as altruistic:

"We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal."

What a crock of sh-t. Like everyone of Google's other tools - Google creates apps/tools/services for THEIR OWN BENEFIT.

Yeah - they create some good tools - I'm not saying otherwise. What I'm saying is that Google always has ulterior motives (mostly data collection and advertising monetization) that trump their altruistic mantra.

Posted by: IsaacGarcia [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 01:02 AM

Yet another great business where GOOG will earn big-time revenue so that finally Henry Dude Blodget does not look stupid anymore. Anyone more than 2000 bucks?!

Posted by: Hans [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 01:23 AM

If Knol is done correctly, it will kick the butt of Mahalo and if it is done wrong, it will add more splog kinda stuff. Wikipedia is safe.

Posted by: Krish [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 02:13 AM

So a quick way to create a Google knol: copy in a Wikipedia page (no problem, just link back to Wikipedia, and acknowledge the GFDL). Add ads. Laugh all the way to the bank. That node is now yours, and by a simple mirror of free material you can prevent others claiming the title? I'm not really understanding here. Are knols centrally disambiguated? Is this going to be a kind of distributed mirror of other content, with tweaking and ownership? Presumably there is no requirement to release author's copyright. (I'm an English Wikipedia admin and arbitrator.)

Posted by: Charles Matthews [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 03:20 AM

The model looks very similar to www.everything2.com. Everything2 has a huge library of real knowls, but it also has an equally large library of playful nonsense. Maybe that's why in it's 10-odd years it was never really taken seriously.

Posted by: EliezerIsrael [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 04:46 AM

The PNG example (http://www.google.com/images/blogs/knol_lg.png) shows a CC-by-3.0 tag. As far as I'm concerned as a Wikipedian, that's a BIG WIN for Wikipedia and what we do - making free content *normal and expected*. If they require contributions to be under a proper free content licence, then I'm a BIG FAN of this endeavour. Same reason Citizendium succeeding would be a big win for what we do - it's not competition, it's expanding the pool of unencumbered knowledge.

If they allow multiple competing articles on a given subject, I'm not so sure that's a win for the reader. There's a Wikipedia fork called Wikinfo.org (run by Fred Bauder, a highly respected Wikipedian who's been on the site since it was called wikipedia.com) which also does this and has almost no traction. I think the Neutral Point Of View policy - as difficult as it is in practice - is our most important innovation, far more so than letting anyone edit the site. People don't come to an encyclopedia for ten articles, they come for one that provides an overview of the ten. That's what an encyclopedia is for - the ten-second or sixty-second or five-minute quick backgrounder. (I'm speaking here in terms of ideals of encyclopedia writing, and am painfully aware of how often we fail to reach it, but that is the compass we work to.)

Posted by: David Gerard [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 05:23 AM

Google has to go this route, because Wikipedia is getting into the search business themselves. Instead of using the algorithm approach, the Wikipedian cult will rely on recommended favorite hits from their users and their hyper-energetic editors and contributors.

Wikipedia is run from just a few servers. Google has all the space in the world to compete in this fashion, and will win in the end with the multi article approach. The Google approach is open while Wikipedia is becoming increasingly closed.

I say Bravo Google.

Posted by: Norm Potter [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 05:48 AM

I don't think Knol is a competitor to wikipedia. It is more about a collection of "authoritative articles" which "highlight authors". Wikipedia is about collective intelligence and aggregation of information.
I feel wikipedia's structure (officially) is a representation of the web (no control, no authorities, self-organization). Knol wants to bring the book-writing online, but the web is, i believe, a social network.
Knol targets a specific public of the web. Wikipedia everyone.

Posted by: robojiannis [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 08:16 AM

I feel wikipedia's structure (officially) is a representation of the web (no control, no authorities, self-organization).

I love that parenthetical "officially"; it speaks volumes.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 09:42 AM

One important question in all this: how much of Wikipedia's traffic comes from Google? I suspect a lot. If that's the case and Google will now feature knols on top of its SERPs (search engine results pages) then that could cut into Wikipedia's traffic considerably.

More of my thoughts on all this here.

Posted by: eszter [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 09:43 AM

Being a PhD student, I'm an expert on a very limited number of aspects; being an attention-whore and a visionnary, I chose a topic that is now hot: editing anything on Wikipedia is a pain for me, because too many edits kill my initial intention. I would gladly contribute to Knol (and Wikipedia, if the editors deem it worthy) because it would allow me to manage my own reference.
Although, it might not be anything more then Page Creator -- but I love and use that too.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 10:00 AM

So if Google wins then a market-driven model (payment via ad. revenues) will have beaten a commons-based model.

Didn't someone somewhere bet against Yochai Benkler that this would happen?

Posted by: tom s. [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 11:54 AM

There is a lot more to Knols than meets the eye. Yes, it has the potential to crush some competitors over time. Yes, it is a huge new opportunity for marketers who understand it. And yes, it can be the next stage in improving Google's search algorithms:


Posted by: BobWarfield [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 12:49 PM

The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of the two: crowd-sourcing the information but then a limited number of editors (one?) to bring it all together in an organized and cohesive fashion.

Posted by: pwb [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 01:31 PM

I welcome this model, and do not see it as a threat, but a compliment, to Wikipedia. There should be different models, which hopefully yield some interesting differences, and a greater diversity of knowledge over any single subject matter; each model should reflect the nature of its policies and structure: WP has a NPOV, academic consensus, balanced, no undue weight, no original research, etc (of course, ideally speaking); Knol is authored by one expert, who can put weight on his POV, theories that he/she wants to advance, his own opinions and, yes, original research. This means its crucial that the author be a top notch expert, specializing in this field, and that there are other completing experts who write on the same subject with their own respective take/slant on the subject.

For me this means that Wikipedia should remain a success as general encyclopedia--a wonderful proof of a collective social experiment (many heads are better than one--while Knols, can be a second level reference source, complementing WP, and adding to the worlds unrestricted accessible, and reliable knowledge base, which can then be quoted in WP itself.

Now I really hope that Knols authors will generate some personalized, high quality, entries, that includes their "original research," as experts in the field, and that they do not simply copy WP's content with small tweaks for profit. That would be a shame. This idea has lots of potential to add to the goal of WP, quoting its founder: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing." Jim W.

Posted by: Giovanni33 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 14, 2007 03:04 PM

the mockup doesn´t follow google´s own design guidelines as in google pages/base/code. if that´s a preview to the upcoming google wiki (aka jots.com) then how would the look and feel integrate into google apps? if google wants to compete with wikipedia they need to buy and open up britannica. if they want to compete with wikipedia they need to do more on the technical side, autocategorization, semantic features, and probably a focus on a test field, like health. as a bottom up competition to wikipedia it just shows the complete arrogance and ignorance of google in the field of "social media". it is heart it´s not a technology but an advertisement company. you cannot replace a encyclopaedica with adwords.

Posted by: pitsch [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2007 07:38 AM

I guess the aim semms to be lousy!

There are about 50 articles, most of them medicine related. I cannot find any hyperlinks within the article. I wonder if anyone will use this.
This will go the kijiji way - all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Posted by: Sudhir [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2008 05:58 PM

Most of the articles are medicine related as these were the guys and gals who took part in the pilot.

However, time will tell if it really is a white elephant or not.

For now, you can't find much by using the Knol Search box ... read what I wrote about it here

Posted by: Debi_zyx [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2008 06:05 PM

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

carrshot5.jpg Subscribe to Rough Type

Now in paperback:
shallowspbk2.jpg Pulitzer Prize Finalist

"Riveting" -San Francisco Chronicle

"Rewarding" -Financial Times

"Revelatory" -Booklist

Order from Amazon

Visit The Shallows site

The Cloud, demystified: bigswitchcover2thumb.jpg "Future Shock for the web-apps era" -Fast Company

"Ominously prescient" -Kirkus Reviews

"Riveting stuff" -New York Post

Order from Amazon

Visit Big Switch site

Greatest hits

The amorality of Web 2.0

Twitter dot dash

The engine of serendipity

The editor and the crowd

Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians

The great unread

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock's avatar

Flight of the wingless coffin fly

Sharecropping the long tail

The social graft

Steve's devices

MySpace's vacancy

The dingo stole my avatar

Excuse me while I blog

Other writing

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The ignorance of crowds

The recorded life

The end of corporate computing

IT doesn't matter

The parasitic blogger

The sixth force



The limits of computers: Order from Amazon

Visit book site

Rough Type is:

Written and published by
Nicholas Carr

Designed by

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.