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When is a Wikipedia not a Wikipedia? (When it's a "Knol")

Semantic & NextGen Web

Or so, at least, Google would like you to conclude.  Significant differences include single-author control (but the freedom for other authors to set up competing pages as well), bylines for page authors, reader ranking, and - oh yes - Google ads (authors interested in allowing ad placements would get a "substantial" share of the resulting revenues).

Here's how Google introduces the concept on a somewhat higher level:

The web contains an enormous amount of information, and Google has helped to make that information more easily accessible by providing pretty good search facilities. But not everything is written nor is everything well organized to make it easily discoverable. There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.

The question, of course, is how well the Knol project will compete with the Wikipedia, both for author input as well as readers. 

And, of course, in quality.  The Google announcement of the Knol project is pasted in below in full, but I'll also provide my review and reactions to the concept, not only on the knol's prospects for fulfilling Google's goals, but also its potential for providing a well supported, highly visible, testbed for individuals to experiment with a wide variety of models for the collaborative creation of Web based content - something the Wikipedia does not offer.

Naturally, its the usual Google Beta, but in this case, the experiment is not yet public.  And according to an article published in the New York Times this morning, it may never be made public if early results are not encouraging.  During the first phase, page authors will be admitted by invitation only - a smart move, as it will not only get the project off to a high quality start, but will also appeal to the egos of later authors that want to join the club. 

That said, the sample knol included in the announcement struck me as being rather intimidating for potential authors - and perhaps deliberately so, to discourage people setting up anything less than a print encyclopedia style and quality entry.  Whether Google has aimed too high in doing so will remain to be seen, although Google's announcement says that there will not be any editorial control exercised by Google over individual topic entries, and, as a result, "we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality."

Google describes the roll out as follows:

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. For now, using it is by invitation only. But we wanted to share with everyone the basic premises and goals behind this project.

The announcement also makes it sound as if the interface will be quite simple, perhaps to lure domain experts into the Knol that are not necessarily as comfortable with computers as the usual Wikipedia contributor might be.

The less rigid approach adopted by Google for the project is what I find to be most intriguing.  In effect, the knol platform strikes me as being a bit like Sourceforge, since the tools provided will allow different, variously open cultures to evolve under specific topics, with some authors insisting on maintaining total control of their topic, and others acting as project managers, guiding the process in a manner more like an open source project.  Here's how freedom is described:

Knols will include strong community tools. 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. 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.

Not only different models of collaboration would be possible, but different types of presentations, and areas of focus, would also be possible, potentially making the Knol a less uniform, but more interesting browse, at least in its pioneer phase, before a more uniform approach would be likely to organically evolve.  Or, who knows, perhaps not.  Perhaps the Knoll would become more like a library than an encyclopedia, which could be very exciting indeed.

In the near term, it will be quite interesting to see which pages become most popular where there are duplicates - the page written by (for example) a college professor including exclusively her own content, or a competing page constructed and constantly updated through a more Wikipedian process.  In either case, given the likelihood that Google's sponsorship will attract significant participation due to its visibility, the Knol project will provide an excellent testbed for various approaches to be tried that can then branch out in other ways and to other purposes elsewhere on the Web.  The addition of a revenue opportunity provides an added twist - as well as the question of whether the author of a popular page does, or does not, share with subordinate contributors.

The final way in which the project appeals to me from an experimental point of view is that it represents a potential solution for one of the issues that the evolution of the Web to date has posed.  On the one hand, the Web gives anyone the potential to display their works of authorship and attract readers to them.  On the other hand, it has hugely impacted the ability of writers to make a living out of their craft, due to the explosion of high quality, interesting, and diverse content at a multiplicity of sites.  Perhaps Google's willingness to share ad revenue, as well as the possibility that such revenue might be meaningful (in comparison to most other Google ad programs) enough to actually provide a meaningful reward to authors beyond pure psychic satisfaction.

All that aside, the question remains: if Google gives a knol, will authors in fact come?

Notwithstanding the huge success of the Wikipedia, it's worth noting that a comparatively small number of people out of the more than a billion potential authors with Internet access actually contribute the great majority of the content.  Nevertheless, it has been able to achieve an enormous breadth of articles be striving for an objective presentation of third party material.  Google seems to be counting on a sufficient number of domain experts being attracted to its model to populate an encyclopedia with thousands of entries.

Will that happen?  In fact, I'm rather doubtful.  Community-based projects need to rely on a delicate, and thus far only partially understood mix of access, viral information spreading, equal opportunity balanced with merit-based authority, non-monetary rewards, and social dynamics.  The Google plan is sufficiently different that its attraction remains to be demonstrated - but I, for one, will be following the experiment with great interest.

 

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Encouraging people to contribute knowledge
12/13/2007 06:01:00 PM Posted by Udi Manber, VP Engineering

The web contains an enormous amount of information, and Google has helped to make that information more easily accessible by providing pretty good search facilities. But not everything is written nor is everything well organized to make it easily discoverable. There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. For now, using it is by invitation only. But we wanted to share with everyone the basic premises and goals behind this project.

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content. At the heart, a knol is just a web page; we use the word "knol" as the name of the project and as an instance of an article interchangeably. It is well-organized, nicely presented, and has a distinct look and feel, but it is still just a web page. Google will provide easy-to-use tools for writing, editing, and so on, and it will provide free hosting of the content. Writers only need to write; we'll do the rest.

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. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.

Knols will include strong community tools. 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. 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.

Once testing is completed, participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality. Our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google search results. We are quite experienced with ranking web pages, and we feel confident that we will be up to the challenge. We are very excited by the potential to substantially increase the dissemination of knowledge.

We do not want to build a walled garden of content; we want to disseminate it as widely as possible. Google will not ask for any exclusivity on any of this content and will make that content available to any other search engine.

As always, a picture is worth a thousands words, so an example of a knol is below (click on the image twice to see the page in full). The main content is real, and we encourage you to read it (you may sleep better afterwards!), but most of the meta-data -- like reviews, ratings, and comments -- are not real, because, of course, this has not been in the public eye as yet. Again, this is a preliminary version.

[Click here for the expanded view of the sample knol]

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