Is Google's Knol already becoming a den of spam?

by Doc Searls

Heard about Knol yet? It's Google's Xth new service, and it's a place where you can put up "an authoritative article about a specific topic". That's a knol too. Article=knol.

My first encounter with Knol was at Pointless Games

, an entry by my friend Bernie DeKoven, a funsmith of the first water balloon. A knol, Knol tells us, is "a unit of knowledge". I used to think a thought was one one of those, and I maybe even wrote that once somewhere; but when I search Google now for results that include my surname and exclude knol and google (specifically, searls "unit of knowledge " -google -knol) I find nothing but articles by Searle, who apparently did say that. (Hard to tell. All the results are for abstracts of academic articles buried behind usewalls of various kinds. Meanwhile it annoys me that Google includes misspellings in its "advanced" search.)

Naturally, Knol is being covered as a "rival" to Wikipedia. That's exactly what CNet/ZDNet calls it. Social Computing Magazine calls it "The Wikipedia with a business model". TechLounge calls it "Google's Wikipedia".

(I mention those ahead of the current top result in a search of Google News for knol, because that brings up eWeek's Google's Wikipedia Answer: A Second Shooter on the Google Knol-Wikipedia Battle. There I was greeted by a giant Dell ad that tells you to click here or wait 12 seconds, which it counts down in rolling red lettering, like the clock on a bomb about to go off, absolutely distracting from the ad itself. That's a "feature" that makes one annoyed at both Dell and eWeek simultaneously. Nice work, guys.)

Naturally, Wikipedia has much more to say about Knol than does Google. It begins,

Knol is a Google project which aims to include user-written articles on topics ranging from "scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions."[1] The brainchild of Udi Manber of Google,[2] it was announced on December 13, 2007 and was opened in beta to the public on July 23, 2008[3] with a few hundred articles mostly in the health and medical field.[2][4]

Knol pages are "meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read", according to Manber.[1] The term knol, which Google defines as a "unit of knowledge",[5] refers to both the project and an article in the project.[1] Several experts see Knol as Google's attempt to compete with Wikipedia,[6] while others point out the differences between the projects.[7] (revision link)

To put it briefly, they are not the same. They don't compete.

But that doesn't mean Knol isn't competitive with other sites and services. I think Jason Calacanis nails it pretty well when he asks, Is Google A Content Company? Of Course It Is. So What Should Publishers Do? If you're a writer or publisher, (like,um, we are), Jason's piece is relevant reading. It's a bit on the alarmist side, but Jason cops to that, wondering out loud whether complainers are "crybabies or canaries in the coal mine".

Either way, we need to face the fact that Google has become a platform. Or, as Dave Winer put it the other day, a coral reef. These things grow over a long period of time, and support many life forms. The tougher trick is to be generative. A generative platform is not about lock in. Rather, it's about opening things up, and being supportive of more than those things that depend on you directly. In The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop it., Jonathan Zittrain illustrates the PC's generativity as the flexible waist in an hourglass, rather than the bottom of a stack:

Nice that he includes Linux in there. We should add that Linux cares less about what it runs on, or what runs on it, than either of the other two OS platforms. Which brings us to Jonathan's illustration of the generative role played by the Internet itself:

Google is at the top level of that diagram. More significantly, it has a business interest in the success of its dependents (as do Microsoft and Apple in PC diagram). Wikipedia doesn't have that. Big difference.

At this point I see no threat by Knol to publications like ours or Jason's. I do see a possible threat to academic journals. As I discovered in my search above, most academic journals lock up their archives. Knol's methods and ambitions line up very nicely with those of academics who don't like to see their writing locked away — and who would like the bylined credit they don't get in Wikipedia.

But so far it looks to me like the biggest problems Knol creates are for Google itself. That's because Knol provides one more way to game Google's advertising monoculture. A few minutes ago I looked up "anemia" on Knol, with no results. Then I looked up "hair" and got eleven results. The top result is for this article on hair loss, by Rob E. Angelino, Founder Hairlab center for hair restoration. Or so it says at the top. At the bottom it says "Copyright © 2005-2007 United Global Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved". Not sure how that squares with Knol's defaulted Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, but it's significant that Mr. Angelino also has collaboration closed on the document. You can do that with Knol. It also says here that Mr. Angelino is "Founder and CEO of United Global Media Group Inc." and "currently the CEO of The Beauty TV Network". Mr. Angelino has a total of six knols, including one each for the Beauty Channel, BeautyTV and The Beauty Network. The search also brings up this knol by Julia Elorriaga of, and hair bleaching tips by Sara, who has several other knols but no bio. At the bottom it says "Contributed to by Greg S".

With the possible exeption of Sars's post, all that stuff is commercial gaming. "Units of knowledge" these aren't.

Knol will succeed if serious contributors outnumber the gamers. I don't hold much hope for that, even though I remain charmed that Bernie DeKoven's knol about Pointless Games was what launched me into this long post.

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