Knol: A Google Geologic Hillock with an Interesting Core

August 3, 2008

I am heading to Illinois, and I vowed I would hit the road and post a comment upon arrival in America’s most scenic area: the prairie between Bloomington and Chillicothe, Illinois. Breathtaking. Almost as stunning as the discussion about Knol, Google’s alleged Wikipedia “killer”.  Apophenia here weighs in with the “standing on the shoulders of giants” argument. The idea is that Google should have done more with Knol. For me the key point in his write up was:

What makes me most annoyed about Knol though is that it feels a bit icky. Wikipedia is a non-profit focused on creating a public good. Google is a for-profit entity with a lot of power in controlling where on the web people go. Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?

The challenge is valid if Knol were designed to generate revenue from ads. At the risk of being accused of recycling information that I have been speaking and writing about for six years, let remind myself that Google has a voracious hunger for information and data in any form. Knol fits into this Google-scape. I will return to this point after I refer you to iAppliance Web here. Bernard Cole’s “Google Knol Takes on Wikipedia’s Online Encyclopedia. The key point for me in this good article was:

Knol’s collaboration model is also more hierarchical. Article collaborators can suggest changes but cannot make them without the author’s approval. While this bottleneck may lead to Knol being less timely than Wikipedia, it should prevent the revision wars that plague controversial Wikipedia articles.

I absolutely agree that Google will get something for nothing when people contribute. A Knol article, as Mr. Cole notes, will have an “owner”, a person who has met some Googley criterion as an individual qualified to write a Knol essay.

Let’s step back. When I worked my way through Google’s patent documents and the publicly available technical papers here, I noticed that a great many of these Google writings refer to storage and data management systems that hold a wide range of metadata. Google wants data about the user’s context. Google wants data about user behavior. Google wants data from books in libraries. In its quest for data, Google has been the focal point of a firestorm about copyright. Google knows that for many queries, Wikipedia with its faults pops up at the top of various Google reports listing “important” sites.

Google is a publisher and has been for a long time. The company has a wide range of mechanisms to obtain “content” from users. With the purchase of JotSpot, Google gained access to a publishing system, not a Web log tool, but a system that allowed users to input specific items in a form. The resulting information is nicely structured and ready for additional Google massaging.

When I learned about Knol, my research gave me the foundation to see Knol as a typical Google Swiss Army knife play. Let me highlight a few of the functions that I noted. Keep in mind that Google keenly desires that a coal mine explosion under my log cabin in rural Kentucky explodes and coverts me to assorted quarks and leptons:

  1. Knol has an author, so Google can figure out that anything a Knol author posts has some degree of “quality”. Knowing the author, therefore, provides a hook to add a quality score to other writings by a Knol author. Google doesn’t have legions of subject matter experts. Knol provides a content source that can help with the “quality” scoring that Google does and sometimes in an unsatisfactory manner.
  2. Knol gives Google a hook to get copyrighted material that it owns, not some Jurassic publisher who sees Google as the cause of the pitiful condition of book, magazine, and journal publishers. Once a Knol author gets some content in the system and maybe a stroke from Google or a colleague, Katie, bar the door. I would publish my next monograph on Google in a heartbeat. The money would be okay if Google used its payment system to sell my work, but the visibility would be significant. In my business, visibility is reasonably important.
  3. Know gives Google a clump of information to analyze. Google wants to know the type of things that a company like Attensity or SAS can ferret out of text. These “nuggets” provide useful values to set threshold in other, separate or dependent processes within Google.

Notice that I did not focus on Wikipedia. Google, as I understand the company, floats serenely above the competition. The thrashings of companies threatened by Google are irrelevant to Google’s forward motion. I think Wikipedia needs some fixes, and I don’t think Knol will rush to do much more than what it is now doing. Knol is sitting there waiting to see if its “magnetism” is sufficiently strong to merit additional Google effort. If not, Knol’s history. If there is traffic, Google will over time nudge the service forward.

I also ignored the ad angle. Google’s patent documents contain scores of inventions for selling ads. There’s a game-based ad planning interface that to my knowledge remains behind closed doors. Everything Google does can have an ad stuck in it. So Knol may or may not have ads. Knol is not purpose built to sell more ads, but that’s an option for Google.

Based on my research, Google has a good sense of video content. Google has not figured out how to monetize it, but Google knows who makes hot videos, the traffic a hot video pulls, and similar metrics. Google knows similar data about Web logs. Now Google wants to know about individual authors’ willingness to generate original content and how the users will behave with regard to that content.

Scroll forward two years and think about Google as a primary publisher. Knol is one cog in a far larger exploration of the feasibility of Google’s becoming a combination of the old newspaper barons and the more financially frisky Robert Maxwells of the publishing world. Toss in a bit of motion picture studio and you have a new type of publishing company taking shape.

Granted Google Publishing may never come into being. Lawyers, Google’s own management, or a technical challenge from Jeff Bezos or a legal eagle could bring Googzilla down. But narrowing one’s view of Knol to a Wikipedia killer is not going to capture Knol, what it delivers, and where it may lead.

Knol is exciting for these reasons not because it is an ersatz Wikipedia. Okay, tell me I’m recycling old information, living in a dream world, or just plain wrong. Any of these is okay with me. Remember the disclaimer for this personal Web log.

Stephen Arnold, August 3, 2008


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