Google recently announced Knol, a new experimental website that puts information online in a way that encourages authorial attribution. Unlike articles for the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which anyone is free to revise, Knol articles will have individual authors, whose pictures and credentials will be prominently displayed alongside their work. Currently, participation in the project is by invitation only, but Google will eventually open up Knol to the public. At that point, a given topic may end up with multiple articles by different authors. Readers will be able to rate the articles, and the better an article’s rating, the higher it will rank in Google’s search results.
Google coined the term “knol” to denote a unit of knowledge but also uses it to refer to an authoritative Web-based article on a particular subject. At present, Google will not describe the project in detail, but Udi Manber, one of the company’s vice presidents of engineering, provided a cursory sketch on the company’s blog site. “A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read,” Manber writes. And in a departure from Wikipedia’s model of community authorship, he adds that “the key idea behind the Knol project is to highlight authors.”
Noah Kagan, founder of the premier conference about online communities, Community Next, sees an increase in authorial attribution as a change for the better. He notes the success of the review site Yelp, which has risen to popularity in the relatively short span of three years. “Yelp’s success is based on people getting attribution for the reviews that they are posting,” Kagan says. “Because users have their reputation on the line, they are more likely to leave legitimate answers.” Knol also has features intended to establish an article’s credibility, such as references to its sources and a listing of the title, job history, and institutional affiliation of the author. Knol may thus attract experts who are turned off by group editing and prefer the style of attribution common in journalistic and academic publications.
Manber writes that “for many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.” But Mark Pellegrini, administrator and featured-article director at Wikipedia and a member of its press committee, sees two problems with this plan. “I think what will happen is that you’ll end up with five or ten articles,” he says, “none of which is as comprehensive as if the people who wrote them had worked together on a single article.” These articles may be redundant or even contradictory, he says. Knol authors may also have less incentive to link keywords to competitors’ articles, creating “walled gardens.” Pellegrini describes the effect thus: “Knol authors will tend to link from their articles to other articles they’ve written, but not to articles written by others.”