Google Sets Its Sights On Hosting Knowledge

Google is typically known for its advertising, search engine, and news aggregation services. From Geoffrey Bilder on crosstech comes word of a new Google effort called “knol” that will “to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it.” Sound familiar? We typically call such a thing an “encyclopedia” and it is a new in-road into information hosting. Details are scarce beyond the posting by Udi Manber (VP Engineering at Google) linked above (which also says “The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing.”). But one of the key aspects known is that articles will come from signed authors (more like Citizendium than Wikipedia), not anonymous or pseudo-anonymous editors (“We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content.”). Here are some other key aspects extracted from the blog posting:

  • “For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject.”
  • “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.”

In a nod to where Knols may be put in search engine results, Manber says “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.” That would seem to suggest that they could be placed prominently in search engine results. Manber goes on to say that not all Knols will be of high quality and that “our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google search results.”

There is also a way to monetize Knols. Manber’s post says: “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.” That may provide an incentive for some to write Knols that may otherwise attempt to add an article to a shared encyclopedia project like Wikipedia.

Commentary on Knols

Eszter Hargittai on the Crooked Timber blog has a well-thought-out post, and the part of it that made me think the most relates to her first point about search engine results placement. Hargittai says: “Users trust Google (and probably other search engines, pointers to research on others are welcomed!) and it sounds like Google plans to post links to these knols on SERPs likely on top of the list so I anticipate considerable reader exposure.” Lots of other interesting thoughts in that blog posting, too.

Betsy Schiffman of Wired Magazine sees a potential for a conflict of interest, though, and she includes this quote in her article:

“This is Google’s way to grab the ‘third page’ of search,” says Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The first page is the main page of a portal; the second page is where the search results are; the third page is what you click on when you decide where to go. Google already owns the first and second page, but since they don’t own content, they have no control over the third page. In fact, a lot of times Yahoo-owned content could show up on the third page.”

In comparing Knols with other public encyclopedia projects (such as Wikipedia and Citizendium), Farhad Manjoo of Salon.com draws an interesting distinction in the intended “voice” of the articles. He notes that Wikipedia strives to capture “collective knowledge” — which is to say that articles are written by multiple authors who are “not given explicit credit for their contributions.” As such, a neutral point-of-view is part of the standards for articles. A Knol, on the other hand, will be by a single author and can be as opinionated as the author wants. In fact, Manber said there will likely be many Knols on the same topic from different perspectives.

Manjoo also notes that the way a reader will judge the truth and accuracy of articles will differ. Evaluating the trustworthiness of a Wikipedia article involves looking at the cited references for the information contained in the article. (This is why another one of the standards for articles is verifiability through citations.) By contrast, the trustworthiness of a Knol will likely be based in part on the perception of the individual author and the commentary/ratings/etc. from the surrounding social networking community.

Rafe Needleman of C|Net News has a different take; he says “Knol is like Blogger because it’s a personal publishing platform. It’s all about giving authors a platform for writing. It’s just a like a blog, but much more structured.” I’m not so sure I’d go that far, because for me a blog is more about the conversation, and it doesn’t strike me that a series of Knols — strung together by author — will make for much of a conversation.

Impact on the Library Community

With such little information about the program, it is hard to gauge the impact Google Knols will have on libraries. At the very least, it becomes one more place users will find information on the web. Because these will be written by named authors, will instructors protest using Knols as cited references in papers as they do for Wikipedia articles? (Setting aside for the moment the question of whether it is appropriate to cite secondary sources like encyclopedia articles in research papers, of course.) Is there a new bullet point in information literacy classes here?

On the flip side, would librarians write Knols? Perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine those of us who are public servants would be able to accept ad revenue from the effort. And perhaps that is okay.

(This post was updated on 05-Jun-2014.)