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.”
Google also faces the difficult task of generating a useful body of knowledge from scratch. According to Wikipedia, it has taken more than seven years to generate its 9.25 million articles. “There’s really no shortcut to getting this kind of coverage,” says Pellegrini.
But Google is well positioned to provide a monetary incentive for content generation through its advertising programs, such as AdSense. If Knol attracts the number of users Wikipedia currently enjoys, Google has an opportunity to publish an equivalent number of ads. And some of that revenue would find its way to content providers. Manber writes, “If an author [of a Knol article] chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads.”
These payments are likely to be modest, however, especially when the site is newly launched and doesn’t yet have enough content to attract many readers. And Kagan believes that for many online content contributors, small payments from revenue-sharing programs will prove less of an incentive than the desire to share something they are passionate about. He points to the example of the revenue-sharing video website Revver, which has yet to approach the popularity of YouTube. “Many times, paying users to do things they wouldn’t genuinely do proves not to work,” Kagan says.
Google is betting that, if it can generate enough content, its expertise in search–and the effectiveness of peer review–will give it a competitive advantage. But while reader rating systems are common on sites that review goods and services, such as epinions and Amazon.com, it’s unclear how effective they will be as a means of promoting user-generated content. Manber writes, “Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content.” Wikipedia and peer-reviewed journals, by contrast, have mechanisms for preventing the proliferation of inaccurate content. Peer-reviewed journals publish only those articles deemed worthy by a group of the author’s academic contemporaries. Wikipedia articles are constantly edited by numerous authors, so bogus information is typically removed quickly. In 2005, Nature found that there was not a substantial difference between the accuracy of scientific articles on Wikipedia and those in the Encyclopedia Britannica.