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Google Goes After Wikipedia

A blog posting from Google’s Udi Manber, vice president of engineering, fires the first shot in a competition that will at least prove interesting, if not world-changing. In the post, Manber announces Google Knol – a “knol” is a Google-invented word standing for “a unit of knowledge. The basic concept behind Google Knol is that anyone (eventually; it’s in private testing for now) will be able to create a well-designed, automatically organized Web page on any topic – Google’s goal is that knols will be the first hits people looking for information will find.

This sounds a lot like Wikipedia, and that’s intentional. Anyone can already create an article in Wikipedia on any topic, and Wikipedia articles already sit atop the search results for a vast number of terms – try a Google search for “Hurricane Katrina,” for instance, and the first hit is the comprehensive Wikipedia article on the topic. So why would Google be attempting to replicate Wikipedia?

Put yourself in Google’s business shoes for a moment. Google is happy to provide the search that reveals the Web pages that people want to find because of the ads that appear on the search results page. But wouldn’t you be even happier if you owned the results of that next click too? Google has long been adding services that keep you within the Google orbit longer, so, for instance, if you search for “New York weather,” Google presents you with a mini report and forecast rather than send you off to another site right away. Similarly, if you search for “recipe spaghetti,” Google dumps you into a recipe-specific
search interface (this doesn’t yet happen with all recipe searches, or even for all people).

So if a Google knol becomes the top result for related searches, Google has the opportunity to display ads on that page. Here’s where Google Knol departs from the Wikipedia approach. Google knols will have a single author, who will be credited and will decide if ads are to be displayed, sharing in the revenue if so. Manber makes a big deal about how authors have faded into the background on the Web, saying “…somehow the Web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors’ names highlighted.” That’s hooey – there is no systematic lack of credit to authors on the Web in general, with nearly every article, blog post, comment, and home page providing a clear mark of authorship. Heck, the basic idea of having authors create
topic-specific pages isn’t even new – (now owned by The New York Times Company), has been doing this since 1996.

That’s a huge split from the community-based approach that Wikipedia uses, where every article is the result of a collaborative writing and editing effort from many different people. And, of course, where ads have no place.

According to Manber, Google Knol will include community-based features as well, with people being able to “submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so on.” But the key word there is “submit” – the implication is that the primary author remains in control of the content and can choose to address or ignore comments and edits as desired. Google even says, “All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors.”

Speaking as an author, and as a publisher who has worked with hundreds of authors over the last 18 years, I think this is a huge mistake. Maintaining content is hugely difficult and time-consuming, and not something that most authors do well (if at all). The beauty of the Wikipedia approach is that anyone who wants can contribute as much or as little as they want, as frequently as they want. If one person loses interest, there’s always room for another to take over.

There’s also an implication in Manber’s post that knols will be of high quality because of this authorial ownership. That will be true of some, but the reality of the situation is that most people, even if they are expert in some topic, can’t write their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Many won’t even have the necessary skills to organize the source material – this stuff isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.

Google’s answer to this is that they don’t care, claiming that their search rankings will separate the wheat from the chaff, and will in essence arbitrate between good and bad knols on the same topic. Since Google is providing no editorial or organizational oversight, duplication is nearly guaranteed, which results in dilution of interest from the community. Editors who might donate some time to fixing up Wikipedia pages won’t have the same interest in working on multiple similar knols, especially those that stand to benefit the author.

Worms abound in the Google Knol can. What happens when there are copyright infringement claims against knols that plagiarize content from elsewhere? Will knol authors start by just stealing Wikipedia articles, and will Google act to prevent that? Will Google’s policies disallowing specific content for services like Google Groups apply to Google Knol? What happens when a knol author gets busy, becomes bored with a knol, or dies? Will Google be able to argue in international court that it has no oversight over illegal content created using its own service? There’s nothing new here, but the bigger the company, the bigger the target.

Don’t get me wrong. Google will undoubtedly do a much better job than Wikipedia in terms of user interface and hosting technology, and the Google Knol pages will undoubtedly be better designed and more attractive. Generalized wiki technology simply can’t compete with a purpose-built tool designed and run by the dominant company on the Web.

But with this project, Google looks more like Microsoft than ever before: coming late to the game with a solution that’s only a marginal improvement over the competition, all while talking as though it’s a revolutionary change. Just as the open-source Linux has proven impossible for Microsoft to squash, Wikipedia’s community-based approach, flawed and argumentative as it can be, will prove more compelling, accurate, and resilient than Google Knol in the long run.

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