After six months of testing, Google has formally rolled out Knol, a service designed to let people create pages of knowledge on any topic they choose. While Google says Knol is not designed to compete with Wikipedia — and there are good arguments to back this up — I still think the easiest way to describe the service is Wikipedia with moderation. Below, more about this, the service in general, and some of the issues it may raise for Google.
As many are aware, Wikipedia allows anyone to create and edit pages on all types of topics. Need to know about the BS 546 electrical plug used by old houses in Britain? I once did, and the Wikipedia community has created a page about the topic.
The collaborative advantage to Wikipedia is also its disadvantage. Since anyone can contribute, some introduce factual errors or overtly vandalize articles (see George Washington Did What According To Wikipedia???). It’s one reason that Wikipedia is considering moderation.
Like Wikipedia, Knol (unlike many other Google products, officially it’s just "Knol," not "Google Knol") allows anyone to create a page about any topic. By default, new pages are set to use "moderated collaboration," which means anyone can contribute to them but additions only go live after the page’s main author or authors allow the contributions to be added.
It’s a nice idea. Potentially, it helps solve issues like vandalism yet allows for a broad group of people to contribute. It also is a chief argument in favor of why Google even needs to introduce a tool like Knol, that it is providing what will likely be a robust authoring tool with a unique set of features.
Building A Knol
Creating a Knol is easy. You simply click on the "Write A Knol" button on the home page, and then you get to a page authoring tool with options such as:
- Title: This serves as the main headline of your page
- Affiliation: This option was added based on the feedback of medical professionals,
who form the bulk of those who have privately tested Knol. They wanted people to list any relevant affiliations that
might be seen as conflicts of interest. Personally, I think calling this a
"bio line" might make more sense. It’s not required.
- Summary: A summary of what the article is about.
There’s also a main body field, of course. Within this, you can do basic formatting of code, insert links (all which are supposed to be nofollow, Google says), and more. There’s no particular style that a knol has to follow, in terms of fonts, page headings or so on.
Right now, you can’t add embedded content such as YouTube videos or maps. It’s mainly a security issue at the moment, Cedric Dupont, the product manager for Knol, told me. If Knol allows embedded code, malware could get in. They’re exploring the best way to do this going forward. But what about other Google authoring tools like Blogger or Page Creator that can handle embeds? These tools are using their own unique code, and Google wants to develop common code that allows safe embeds for Knol and other Google properties.
After you’ve created a knol, you can modify its settings using the "Manage" tab at the top of the knol page. This is where you can:
- Control Collaboration: Allow anyone to contribute without
moderation, allow contributions but only with approval, or keep it only
open to authors.
- Set Sharing License: You can license your knol for others to
use via Creative Commons. But what’s annoying is that if you use something like the "attribution"
option, there’s no way to indicate exactly what you consider to be fair
attribution (Flickr is the same way). In other words, it’s great that you can
say the work can be shared if attributed in a manner specified. But if
someone follows the help
page to learn
more about licensing your work, there’s nothing on it that says where to
find the exact attribution the author wants.
- Enable Ads: Yes, Knol will have ads, at launch from Google
AdSense. If you already have an AdSense, you can enable it. Don’t have
one? Knol stands ready to set you up. Yes, Google is considering letting
ads from others appear on these pages, but there are no immediate plans
- Control Owners: Decide who can administer the knol.
- Control Authors: Decide who can edit and modify the knol’s
- Invite Reviewers: If you’re building a knol that hasn’t been
published, this allows you to let others see it.
- Unpublish/Delete: Allows you to pull a knol from public view if you published it already or delete it entirely.
I said earlier that there are some ways Knol is not like Wikipedia. One example of this is that there’s no table of contents or category structure on the Knol home page to let you drill down into entries. Instead, if you want to find something, by and large you have to search for it using the search box on the site.
At first I thought this odd, but then it made a lot of sense. I certainly never go to the Wikipedia home page to browse my way to a Wikipedia entry. Usually, I get to an entry by searching for the topic (and typically from having done that search on Google itself).
The Knol home page does have some "Featured" knols on it. What puts them there? Among the various signals Google uses are how long people browse particular pages, how highly they are rated, commenting activity and more. These same signals are also used to help rank pages in response to keyword searches.
Importance Of The Author
Another way knol is different from Wikipedia is that it is designed to have a heavy focus on a particular author. That’s something Google emphasized about Knol when it was first announced last December. From my interview then with Google vice president of engineering Udi Manber:
"Knol is all about the authors," he said. "We believe that knowing who wrote a knol will significantly help users make better use of web content."
You can see the emphasis reflected in both the author box at the top right of each page and Google’s attempt to "verify" that an author is who they say they are.
For example, with Twitter, popular author Seth Godin doesn’t actually twitter using the sethgodin name. Someone else does. Knol seeks to solve this by at least determining if someone’s "real life" name matches what they’re using on Knol.
To do this, authors are invited to "Verify Name" using a button under their picture. Verification can be done through cell phone, as Google can match names to mobile phone records, apparently. Do this, and you get a PIN code sent to your phone to complete the process.
Verizon subscribers are out of luck, as might be others (it didn’t work for me using AT&T). As an alternative, you can provide a credit card number. I did a double-take at this. Google, which faces so much pressure in some quarters that it is gathering too much information, is asking for credit card numbers? I know, I know, all the usual "we won’t use this for other things" reassurances are given — and I believe them. But still, it just seems a bad idea to try it this way if only from the negative public perception that might result.
Spam & Ranking Domination Issues
Google’s Blogger service has become a well-known haven for spammers (and the relaunched Google Sites program just got attention for hosting Viagra spam). Things have greatly improved over the past years, but it’s still a problem. What’s to keep Google’s Knol from becoming another spam repository?
The refreshingly honest answer was that Google does expect there will be spam in Knol. But Google said it also expects to keep this in control by watching for it very closely, noting that since Knol is a product from Google’s search quality team, that team has a lot of experience in detecting search spam that will be applied.
What about the issue that Knol pages might start dominating Google’s search results, pushing out other content, in part because they enjoy the strong authority of Google’s core domain? For example, it’s well discussed in SEO circles that sites that are "trusted" through having earned "authority" in various ways can seemingly can rank for anything.
Google assured me that the authority of Google’s domain wouldn’t give Knol any additional trust. Knol pages will be scored based on the links and PageRank pointing to individual pages.
And if spam isn’t kept in control, could Knol find itself banned on Google? Yes, Dupont said.
Do We Need Knol?
While Knol only supports English and name verification for those in the US at launch, Google hopes to quickly internationalize it. Support for multiple languages, including Arabic and Spanish, should come quickly. Indeed, Dupont said that Google views Knol as being more important for many non-English speakers who’ve yet to publish material because of what Google views to be a lack of good tools in their countries.
That leads me back to my dubiousness I had when Knol was first announced:
Google already offers other content creation tools, such as Blogger and Google Page Creator. In addition, there are non-Google tools people already use to publish content, not to mention collaborative tools such as those I named at the opening of this article. Why yet another tool?
Manber said that Knol has a special focus on authors and a collection of tools that Google thinks is unique, and which in turn should encourage both content creation and readership….
Somehow, I suspect Seth Godin over at Squidoo isn’t going to be buying the uniqueness argument. At least on the face of the screenshots (the one above is a page authored by Manber’s wife, who is testing the system), Squidoo offers pages featuring authors prominently, which also allow ratings and some collaboration.
Google is sticking with the idea that Knol is indeed needed:
"Blogger wasn’t created to solve a search problem. I do believe [Knol] does solve a search problem. The problem we have, unlocking what people know and bringing it online. This is another tool to help release some of this knowledge. My dad has never written anything online. If he sees value in writing a knol, we’d be hugely successful," Dupont said.
And the competition with Wikipedia? Isn’t that what this is, a Wikipedia challenger?
"We’re not trying to build an encyclopedia. That’s a very focused product. Wikipedia has a great product, but that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re building is a place for people to store their bits of knowledge, and each of these bits come with the author bios and opinions and clearly that’s very different from an encyclopedia. We hope many of these knols and their authors will be referenced by Wikipedia and encyclopedias and help them," Dupont said.
In particular, he also noted that unlike Wikipedia, there’s no "one" entry for any particular topic. Any topic might have many different knols produced by different authors.
Watch & See
Overall, I still lean toward not wanting Google to do this. I remain concerned that by hosting this content, it plays too much in the content owner space when its core business is supposed to be driving traffic outbound to others. Hosting content sets up inherent conflicts that over time start to erode the trust people have in Google, I feel.
It’s difficult, of course. YouTube is hosting content, but if YouTube hadn’t offered hosting to begin with, some of the good content there would never have appeared. Google Book Search is another example. Skip the legal issues over in-copyright books. Google’s hosting plenty of out-of-copyright content that’s helpful — and if it didn’t host it, that content wouldn’t exist on the web at all.
I can see the value in Knol’s toolset and the potential it might offer to help collect further knowledge. Similarly, the unique environment that Yahoo Answers has created has indeed led to answers showing up on the web that might otherwise not have appeared. So I’ll give Knol the benefit of the doubt — that it will perhaps occupy a space not being filled, rather than push others aside. I just wish it weren’t Google
For more, see related discussion on Techmeme.