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Archive for December 14th, 2007

Google’s Knols (the anti-Trolls) Are Opportunity for All, But Especially for Google

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 14, 2007

When Google sneezes, we all get the cold.  It is ubiquitous.  It is the front door to the web.  Google’s search share in November climbed to a staggering 69% of all queries, according to  So it’s not too surprising that the blogosphere will hang on every crumb of information that escapes the Googleplex.  The latest is a doozy.  Google has announced a new service called Knol that is a very “Wikipedia-like” service.  The idea is to encourage individuals to write encyclopedia like articles.  But there are some interesting kickers:

– Unlike Wikipedia, Knol will emphasize who wrote each article. 

– Authors are eligible to participate in ad revenues for the pages.

– Google will use the awesome power of its search engine to drive traffic to the pages it deems best by adjusting their ranking in the search results.

Each of these is no small issue, and together they have driven considerable commotion.  The last one, I think, scares people the most.  Om Malik says Google is finally showing its monopolist claws:

Now if you think about it, knol despite its fancy name is nothing but a classic move by a quasi-monopolist who wants to ensure that they keep getting the raw material (in this case content on Knol) for free, so that they can keep selling it at a premium.

Not so fast Om:  Google is offering to share in the spoils of advertising.  OTOH, with a 69% share of search, I think we have to conclude that Google is no “quasi” monopolist, they are the real thing.  And that business of adjusting search rank has got to be scary, particularly if you will be competing in some way with Knol (as some say services like Mahalo, Squido, and clearly Wikipedia will be).  Om is not the only one who is deeply suspicious of all this.

Steve Rubel cuts directly to the chase by saying, “Wikipedia and Wikia are Dead. Google Just Killed Them.”  Rubel sees the good aspects of Knol in terms of emphasizing individuals, and also sees the opportunity (more about that below), but he thinks it will make life tough for competitors.  Techcrunch writer Duncan Riley worries that Knol is going a step too far.  His concern is that this is another step on the rung of the ladder that has Google moving from indexing other people’s content to owning the content themselves.  He is write.  I’ve written about this issue with respect to platforms when I argue that platforms have to act as Switzerland.  When a platform competes with it’s customers, that’s problematic.  When a monopolist does so, that’s what everyone complained about in Microsoft’s case.  Another phenomenon at work is a natural evolutionary instinct that is hardwired into each of us: we fear too much concentration of power or advantage.  Eventually that fear turns to active dislike and resistance.  Google is definitely starting to feel this.  Despite their “no evil” pledge, they will eventually react with bewilderment as they watch the once friendly world begin to react negatively to moves they think of as natural next steps.  Perhaps this is what was meant by the idea that “power corrupts”.  Eventually the wielder loses perspective on what they are doing to others around them.  They feel entitled to take the actions they do for having build the empire that serves as their power base.

What I see Google doing here is looking for walls to tear down in case there might be a garden inside.  Google’s share has gotten so great that the Internet itself is their walled garden.  Further walls inside the Google Estate are an annoyance.  After all, if you hunt on the King’s land, you are killing the King’s game, and that’s just not right.  Read/Write Web agrees, although not so dramtically and with no sense of Kingsmanship when they say, “It won’t be a walled garden but will live on the open web.”

The name “Knol”, BTW, apparently is a short form for “Knowledge Unit”, which is what the Googlers think of these articles as.  I prefer to think of the people writing as the Knols, since they’re one of the big differences here.  In fact, a “Knol” as content creator is sort of the opposite of a “Troll“.  Malik goes on to say this move is also a tacit admission by Google that the almighty search algorithm isn’t everything.  It takes people to get to the next step.  I’ll have more about that to say below, but he’s right.

This business of Knol being about the people is a key thing.  It is one of the big differences that might motivate people to be consumers of Knol instead of Wikipedia where the individual is minimized (that and the unseen hand of manipulated search results).  I’m all for it (um, not all for that unseen hand).  As I’m reading blogs I often have LinkedIn and Facebook there and when I see a new name, I will go and look them up to see what I can learn.  There’s nothing like understanding an individual’s background to help understand their perspective.  It’s especially important to know whether they have some vested interest in that perspective.  Individual names without context aren’t really people, they’re just tags until you get to know them.

Stowe Boyd has always had keen insights into this kind of thinking, much more so than I with my rectilinear Engineer’s thinking, so his article on this did not disappoint.  Stowe loves the idea of bringing the individual to the forefront, principally because he feels that Wikipedia and similar services homogenize content too much and reduce it to a committee-run process of consensus.  This can drain the life out of an idea and certainly an article.  There certainly have been problems with unseen backroom tampering at Wikipedia, a phenomenon that Stowe politely refers to as the, “tyranny of the bureaucratic infighting around what is and is not true.”  There have been some more nefarious doings in that respect, but I’ll let that be lest we digress.  Stowe amusingly replaces the backroom bureaucratic process with Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand’ as a means of determining truth, which he says is aptly Googlesque.  I agree.  Capitalism will decide based on who gets the most ad revenue and reader votes, with some subtle jiggling as well.  There will be Google’s staff at work for the latter to ensure “quality.”  Some moderation will be called for to ensure that Trolls do not infiltrate the Knols, but I hope any such editing will be done with the gentlest touch.

Most of this is fine and well.  Both Steve Rubel and Nick Carr view Wikipedia as a competitor to Google, but I’m not sure I do yet.  I use Wikipedia a lot, so anything that gives me even more “Wikipedia” goodies is a winner.  One of my “productivity” tricks is to type the concept into Google and add “wikipedia” to the search.  This generally gets me to the Wikipedia page with one more click.  I’ve never felt lucky enough to invoke the Google option to just go to the first result, but perhaps I should start.  This “trick” is one more in my bag of goodies to avoid the spammers.  Directly searching Google without prejudice is something I save for last.  Still, Carr says Wikipedia dominates Google search results for many common searches.  That may be true.  I started using it a lot when I began to see it on the first page of results for many Google searches.  It hadn’t occurred that this might be happening to a lot of people because I tend to search for fairly obscure things relative to what I read are the common searches.  I can’t remember the last time I searched for “Britanny Spears” or “Anne Nicole Smith”. 

Now onto my attempts at deeper insight, rather than just commenting on other’s comments.  I promised some thoughts on opportunity and on how Knol can augment search.

First, let’s focus on search.  Don Dodge says that search is the start page of the Internet.  I think he is right, at least in general.  I have my own tailor made start page for my browser, an idea I got from John Dvorak of all people.  It is only useful to me, but it does gather together my most frequently accessed web resources in a convenient way that reflects my interests.  Google features prominently there as do various shopping services, special interest communities, and other goodies.  Some things are conspicuosly absent.  Why isn’t Wikipedia there?  Dodge says people don’t search Wikipedia, but as I have said, I do.  I just like to use my Google shortcut of adding the word Wikipedia. 

Knol has the potential to be a huge resource for improving search algorithms.  I know from experiments of my own that content such as what will appear in Knol is useful metadata related to search.  The Knol example everyone is passing along is an article about Insomnia.  The link goes to an image, presumably the real thing isn’t linkable yet, but blow up the image and read just a little ways into the article.  Consider an algorithm that looks at a Knol post versus the overall corpus of Google’s archived web pages.  What is the difference in word frequencies between the two?  Here are the first 5 sentences of the article:

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder, present in approximately one in ten adults in the United Staes.  It has both night time and daytime symptoms.  Night time symptoms include persistent difficulties falling and / or staying asleep.  Daytime symptoms include diminished sense of well being and compromised functioning due to fatigue.  The word persistent is empahsized because many people occasionaly experience disturbed sleep at night but their problem is transient.

We now have a pretty good idea from just this little bit of things that are related to insomnia including basics like the fact that it’s related to sleep, its a disorder, and its related to fatigue.  But we have a lot more text to analyze.  We have reader comments to analyze.  We have multiple posts on the same topic so we can triangulate on where the agreement and disagreement between them might be.  We have traffic statistics and page ranks.  And lastly, we have some rules about what these pages should be and ways of enforcing those rules.  A bot can’t just create a Knol and throw it out there to skew the results.  In fact, we might use our knowledge gleaned from Knols to make our search engine even more resistant to dirty SEO tactics and spam.

Are you beginning to see why Google might see this as more than just a way to take on Wikipedia?  It might turn out to be critically important to the next major improvement in their search approach.  It might give us some of the very things Jason Calcanis promises for Mahalo, but it might do so using (gasp) algorithms.  Pretty cool stuff.  I can tell you from experience that letting humans provide hints to help an algorithmic engine cover the last mile is hugely powerful.  One of the keys to making it work well is to limit domains.  In a sense, each Knol is sort of a limited domain that Google can begin to aggregate metadata around that improves search.  Its another approach to the Semantic Web we’ve heard so much about.

Second, I promised thoughts on opportunity.  Steve Rubel sees the potential in his post:

I  am excited about the launch of this initiative. It is my hope that corporations and organizations that play by the rules will be able to unleash their subject matter experts to add content to the commons in a way the community accepts. There’s no reason they should be excluded, provided there is some degree of counter balance.

What’s even more exciting is that it reinforces the role of PR in this new wild and wooly online world. Now granted, we will have to play by the knol rules and be transparent.

I’m less excited than Steve about the potential role of PR, but I think Knols and their competitors will become an essential part of securing mindshare.  The phrase “content is King” has been derided recently.  People talk about the demise of the blogosphere, but I see the opposite.  Content is King, but only when it’s transparent.  Only when you know who is behind it and what their agenda is.  Only when you can trust it.  Google’s decision to emphasize the individual and bring them out into the open aids that transparency.  It creates a new medium to get your message out, provided your message is up to the standards of being worthy.  Mindless marketing pap and press releases done by formula will not pass muster.  The sort of content that makes for a well written blog post can pass muster.  If, in fact, the Knol content does go into the overall search algorithm, it also becomes a means of influencing search that will matter to the SEO crowd.  This compounds the value of getting your message, your brand name, the preferred term or market your products and company are associated with, to be expressed properly and prominently in the Knol world.

The last piece that I want to add is that I haven’t seen that much discussion of the potential of Knols to spill out in other interesting ways.  With each Knol:

“authors of the articles are featured, with photos and a profile page. In addition to the ability to comment on the article — and apparently adding information Wikipedia-style, according to the Google blog post — readers can see other articles written by the same writer, and the articles have a star rating that refers to “peer” reviews, which are also visible in the sidebar.”

Already, this starts to sound to me like a weird blog format, where the blog articles are torn out of individual blogs and cast into a giant Uber Blog.  What are the implications for blogging?  What are the implications for blogging communities like WordPress?   

Secondly, how long before someone at Google starts thinking about how to tie social networking into this.  If people are a big part of what’s new about Knols, then networks of people had also better be there sooner or later.  Will we want a newsfeed attached to the photo and profile page of the authors?  If we find a Knol we particularly like, do we want to go to the profile page and find more articles by the same author?  LinkedIn takes great delight in filling my page with notes on what my contacts are doing elsewhere on LinkedIn.  Will this surface on the profile page.  At what point do we wake up to find another wall around a garden got knocked down and there is a full blown social networking community camped around this thing?

Interesting stuff.

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