Image representing Knol as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Techcrunch recently published an interesting piece about the decline and potential demise of Google Knol.

Is this alternative to Wikipedia about to fade into oblivion after only a year of public availability?

Launched in the summer of 2008, with much fanfare, Knol was supposed to restore the place of the individual author in the realm of reference works, leveraging trust, transparency, and expertise in a familiar manner while avoiding the pitfalls of Wikipedia.

What are those pitfalls, again?

Oh, that’s right — Wikipedia works, it’s useful, and it’s popular.

Well, Knol indeed seems to have avoided all those pitfalls, and is now beginning the sad walk into the waves doomed online properties take when their day has passed.

Even the bright spots in Knol’s brief flash of promise were reflections of its ultimate failings, as Slate documented last fall detailing two entries about Sarah Palin.

The best of the two?

The one someone copied from Wikipedia.

It wasn’t even close.

(An interesting aside — Wikipedia has an entry for Google Knol, but I couldn’t find an entry for Wikipedia on Google Knol.)

I wrote about Google Knol when it first appeared, citing a few readily observable limitations:

The software is very bloglike in many ways, but not impressively elegant. I’m surprised at how traditional most of the entries I checked feel. There aren’t a lot of links native to the text, the writing style seems very much like shoveled material, and there isn’t much multimedia (link to a video on YouTube, for crying out loud, you own it, Google!).

People are openly asking if they can just port Wikipedia entries over to Google Knols. Already, it seems users are sensing inefficiency in creating another reference site de novo.

Google Knol doesn’t encourage debate, contribution, or refinement of information. It’s about self-promotion and protecting a point of view — two traits at odds with an objective and robust reference work. So, it’s not surprising that Knol’s traffic is a mere 10% of Wikipedia’s.

Despite the criticisms of Wikipedia, it continues to be the most robust, well-used, and reliable online reference source we have. Google Knol emphasized an old-school information creation model for reference works.

Apparently, that model for creating a general reference work doesn’t measure up anymore.

However, Google isn’t dumb — they have just rolled out a faster, more accurate version of their search engine for public testing.

They know what their core business is.

(Thanks for the pointer about Knol, Stewart.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Google Knol — Vanity Publishing Fails Again"

I’m not sure I would describe Wikipedia as the most “reliable reference source we have.” It’s still rife with errors, see here and here for recent examples. There’s a reason that schoolchildren are taught not to use it as a primary source in their reference papers. The real usefulness of Wikipedia is as a good starting point to find better, more accurate references.

One reason Knol has done so miserably is that Wikipedia was the first mover in this sort of field. It already had drawn the attention and efforts of so many people, trying to get those same people to duplicate their efforts was clearly too strong an inertial pull to overcome. Though I would argue that the reason Wikipedia continues to thrive and Knol failed boils down to editorial oversight.

Both were set up as wide-open, Wild West sort of ventures, where there was no governance. Volunteers filled that vacuum for Wikipedia, and there’s a deeply dedicated group of about 500 people who enforce Wikipedia’s rules with a collective iron fist. Despite the original goal of not having an editorial board, the Wikipedia community created their own de facto editorial board. This is good and bad, in that this group cuts out the garbage and keeps down the abuses, but at the same time, they’re often overzealous and prefer strict adherence to the rules over quality of content and increasing information delivered. Google’s Knol doesn’t seem to have ever formed enough community to generate a similar de facto editorial board. This combined with the fact that one could make your own Knol articles uneditable by anyone else has led to a lot of unchecked abuse, a dominance by the self-promotion noted in your posting.

Both serve as fascinating experiments, taking a starting point and seeing where things evolve, for good or for bad. Reading your posting, PLOS One immediately came to mind. It’s a collection of uneditable articles, in many ways, much more like Knol than Wikipedia. Readers are supposed to comment on and rate the articles which are published with minimal editorial oversight. We’ll have to see how that experiment works out as well.

A recent statistical study shows that participation in Wikipedia has plateaued, and backs up the idea that Wikipedia content is controlled by a relatively small group of editors, part 1 here, part 2 here, and commentary here and here.

“Google Knol doesn’t encourage debate, contribution, or refinement of information …”

Wikipedia encourages debate, an enormous amount, but has little interest in new contributions anymore. And since an entry can be changed just before accessing it by a user, there can be no expectation Wikipedia is reliable.

Wikipedia’s quality police are in full force, and the pages are de facto locked down by cliques of revert editors.

Sooooooooooo … Knol may have a lot of trash, but it allows complete freedom without constantly having to protect a pet article.

And Knol is really low maintenance compared to Wikipedia with its constant internecine wars about notability, quality, “verifiability”, style manual, and yet more rules that spring up everyday like crab grass.

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