Welcome to the newest player in the sea of Web sites trying to answer your questions: Google Knol. Seen by many as the Wikipedia killer, Google Knol mixes the topical breadth of Wikipedia with the implied expertise in categories of About.com to create a limitless, write-for-pay cyclopedia endeavor.
It has the potential to add value to information-hungry end users. It has the potential to consolidate a dangerous amount of Web traffic, production and revenue in the hands of a single entity, a scary thought, even if the entity's mantra is "Don't Be Evil."
According to Google, the key difference between its encyclopedia and the primary competition is that it is the reverse of Wikipedia's anonymous mass of editors. In Knol, a single professional steeped in the academia of a topic serves as the topic editor. In theory, this is a great addition to the online encyclopedia concept. Readers will probably be more likely to trust the article on salmonella if it is written by the head of a medical facility compared with one written by, say, my auto mechanic sitting in front of his computer after work ranting about the recent tomato-induced illness.
Knol stands for "unit of knowledge," and Google expects the units to add up quickly. Its initial beta launch includes approximately 300 knol entries ranging from "Type 1 diabetes" to "Things to do in Singapore." As the topic areas expand, the gaps between entries and relevant content will surely be filled. But with just a smattering of entries, Google is already receiving copious traffic from organic search engine results.
Despite promises to the contrary of Google not using its domain-name power to increase the relevancy of its search results to promote the Google Knol system, it's hard to believe Knol results won't creep into the top 10 search results for every arena on which its experts decide to write. Search engine results, or SERPs, are the lifeblood of both small and large Web presences. A dip in results from the second place on a keyword search to sixth place results in a geometric traffic decrease on a Web site. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan showed in a brief test that nearly one-third of the keywords he tested ranked in the top search engine results from these newly created Knol entries.
Google's Conflict of Interest
The can of worms in this online encyclopedia project falls at the feet of Google's namesake search engine. If Google Knol entries begin to outrank other normally organic entries, it gets to keep a lion's share of traffic to an unlimited number of topics in its own stable. Specifically, Sullivan calls it a potential conflict of interest. "I remain concerned that by hosting this content, it plays too much in the content owner space when its core business is supposed to be driving traffic outbound to others," Sullivan writes.
The other twist with Google Knol is that, unlike the established informational sites, these esteemed authors are able to earn money from the Google AdSense program. This means that authors are no longer working on a labor-of-love concept. They're gaining notoriety in their field and getting rich doing it, a reward for the hours they spend removing the additions from my aforementioned mechanic.
By mixing the content delivery and search worlds, Google holds the ability to unseat as many topic leaders in search engine results as it wishes. For those of you keeping score, Google now keeps hold of the advertising network, the content, the search engine relevancy and the payment to authors. In essence, if Google creates a wireless bandwidth network and starts selling computers, it will own everything from the top to bottom on content delivery except the end user. That, according to my mechanic's recent Wikipedia entry, is becoming more of a commodity anyway.
Jack Margo is senior vice president of Internet operations at Ziff Davis Enterprise.