Will Google's Knol be a force for evil?

Google's new online encylopedia, Knol

If you missed the recent news it appears that Google has gone, in effect, head to head with Wikipedia, but with differences.

These differences are that Google's new online encyclopedia, called KnolGoogle Knol (derived from the phrase "unit of knowledge"), has a focus on authorship (Wikipedia articles are not credited to individuals) and frames the articles with Adsense advertisements thus "monetizing" the service. Moreover authors will get a cut of the revenue.

You can find the blog post by Udi Manber, Google's VP of Engineering, that announced the general availability of Knol here.

The logic behind Google's move is obvious: With Wikipedia having become the pageview generating monster that it is (about 5 per cent of search results link to its articles), and with its grass roots consensus style authorship, the opportunity to create a commercial version of the concept that gives authors ownership and revenue for their work is commercially compelling.

The way editing Knol articles works is, by default, "authorized collaboration" where an author submits an article and anyone can suggest changes, but only the original author can allow those changes to be made. The alternative is "straight collaboration" where a lead author starts an article and specifically invites other people to edit the piece with the same rights she has.

Authors can choose to license their contributions under the Creative Commons Attribution License (the default), the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License, or an "All Rights Reserved" license.

All of the WYSIWYG editing tools are built-in to the Knol user interface, and by some strange marketing quirk even though you can't yet add images or videos to articles (an incredible omission!) you can add cartoons from the archives of The New Yorker!, I find that seriously weird.

Users can search Knol's content directly and as the articles are indexed along with the rest of the Internet, Knol content will turn up in general Google searches. Beyond searching Knol's content, users can also write reviews of articles and rate them.

This brings up the question of whether Google will show favoritism for its own content over Wikipedia or for that matter over any other knowledge repository. It's very early to try to analyze this and the answer is anything but clear so far. You can bet we'll all be watching very closely for indications of evil bias.

So what does Knol mean for the future of Wikipedia? Quite obviously the opportunity for writers to get paid for what they contribute to Knol, that they would otherwise contribute to Wikipedia for free, is going to have an effect.

Knol may also create problems for itself due to Google's page ranking. This will be because highly rated early articles will get more links and therefore higher page ranks. When later and possibly more up to date and or accurate articles are added it will be hard for them to get attention due to the "momentum" of existing related content.

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