Why Knol is Google's worst idea ever

Google turned 10 years old on Sunday. It celebrated with a show of power last week when it released Chrome, a new Web browser that may or may not destroy all others. But earlier this summer, with far less fanfare, the company released a Web platform that could prove to be just as influential as Chrome, a supposed Wikipedia-killer called Knol.

In an ideal world, Knol would be a detailed reference source where people could write non-anonymous entries on topics that interest them and get a share of the page's ad revenue for their troubles. In reality, the platform will probably hurt the Internet more than it benefits it by filling it with highly ranked spam, misinformation and plagiarism. I've been a longtime Google fanatic, but draw the line at Knol. I hope Google will pull the plug on the program as quickly as possible. Click Continue to read why.

It's No Wikipedia
I can understand where Google was coming from when it dreamt up Knol. Google noticed that a Wikipedia entry usually ranks on the first page of results for a search on just about everything. Wouldn't it be nice if those results would instead link to (ad supported) pages under the Google umbrella? Plus, since Wikipedia is anonymous, full of inaccuracies and can be vandalized by anyone, Google could improve the system by encouraging experts to write on subjects they know well.

Let's take aim at those last assumptions first. Wikipedia is barely anonymous, generally not inaccurate and vandalism tends to be caught and remedied quickly. In fact, a 2005 study in the British journal Nature found that Wikipedia is as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica when it comes to articles about science. And the Wikipedia's accuracy has only gotten better over the past three years — moderators now seem far stricter about the sourcing of facts.

Wikipedia is the only website in the Top 10 most visited U.S. websites that is a nonprofit organization. It's not ad supported, and it doesn't sell anything. Not only does it give its content away for free, but under its documentation license Wikipedia allows others to profit from its content. That's how altruistic the company is — disseminating knowledge is more important to Wikipedia then bothering about whether other people use its information to make money. Though you're always supposed to link to and reference Wikipedia when using its contents, the foundation has never sued to enforce its license.

The Ripoff Factor
Can you see where I'm going with this? If Wikipedia has excellent content that anyone can steal and Knol aims to be an encyclopedia that pays its contributors, then the easiest way to make money from Knol would be to plagiarize Wikipedia pages that have been perfected by hundreds of thousands of meticulous editors over the past seven years. Of course, once that information is off of Wikipedia and onto Knol, it won't be updated and edited by the Wikipedia community, so it's likely to go out of date quickly. Here are some examples of Knols that rip off Wikipedia.

Wikipedians don't just keep information up to date and accurate. They police spammers, publicists and interested parties. Nobody edits Knol. Instead, Google hopes that Knol creators will compete with each other and be ranked by the community so that the best entries rise to the top. But with no community mediation, this is a recipe for disaster. Small but vocal niches can thrive in such an environment — think conspiracy theorists (of the 9/11 Truth or Space Travel is a Hoax variety) or anyone who wants to spread false but plausible-seeming information (think the kind of chain e-mail/urban legend "facts" Snopes is always trying to rebut). On Wikipedia, a vigilant truth-seeking community keeps such voices in check. Closing your eyes and hoping that bad entries will eventually get low search rankings isn't a good substitute for real moderation.

Does the World Really Need Another Squidoo?
Knol is far less similar to Wikipedia than it is to Squidoo. In fact, Knol is basically a Squidoo ripoff — Squidoo, a "search engine" founded in 2005, lets users create "lenses" about topics that interest them. The company splits the ad revenue (and linking revenue, since Squidoo has modules that link to product pages — when an author recommends an Amazon book, for example).

Before Squidoo launched, its founder Seth Godin pitched it to the media company I was working for at the time, encouraging our company to make Squidoos for its publications. My boss was skeptical, but I was convinced: Squidoo would be the way of the future! Why would anyone write for Wikipedia when she could get paid to write Squidoo lenses instead? Why indeed. It turns out that self-interest just isn't the only reason to spread knowledge on the Internet. Or if it is, Squidoo, with its many entry repeats and flagrant Wikipedia ripoffs (just search for Madonna to get an idea), isn't the best outlet for it. Three years later, Squidoo's Web saturation, is about 0.2%, while Wikipedia's hovers around 10%, according to web metrics site Alexa.

Search Ranking Matters
So why should we care? If Knol is destined to become another Squidoo — not a total failure, but not a success by any means, then Internet users can feel free to ignore it (just as they did Orkut, Google's Facebook competitor). Problem is, Knol's URL is knol.google.com: since it's under the Google umbrella it's considered to be one of the one or two most popular websites on the Internet. That means that Google searches may tend to favor Knols, even if Google claims that its algorithm will treat them like any other Web page.

Miguel Heft of the New York Times raises questions of bias. He noted that a Google search for "buttermilk pancakes" turns up a Knol on the subject as its first hit, far ahead of search results for recipes from larger, older websites like Martha Stewart, Epicurious or Food & Wine. Why would this be? At the time, Knol was only three weeks old. Well, as we said earlier, Knol may be young, but Google is 10 years old. We hope that doesn't mean that Knols, whose rightful place on Google searches should be buried with the Squidoos of the world, will push out more deserving Wikipedia entries. Only time will tell. That is, unless Google kills Knol early, before it encourages Wikipedia to file its first lawsuit.