What’s in a knol?

Henry points us to a new Google initiative and was wondering what I might think about it. I started writing a comment, but thinking that a comment shouldn’t be three times as long as the original post (and because I can), I decided to post my response as a separate entry.

First, I think Kieran is right, knol is way too close to troll, I would’ve picked a different name. (That said, most people out there probably have no idea what a troll is so in that sense it’s just as well although I still don’t like the name.)

I address three issues concerning this new service of trying to create something Wikipedialike within Google’s domain: First, will it gain popularity? Second, what might we expect in terms of quality? Third, what’s in it for Google beyond the potential to showcase more ads?

First, those wondering whether this will gain traction should realize the power of being ranked first on a SERP (“search engine results page”). I know from my own research how often users tend to click on the top result (often!). (Many don’t even know that the topmost link is often a sponsored link even though it says so above to the right of the link.) Of course, one could argue that people click on the top result, because it is the most relevant, which is possible. But check out the results of an experiment with a tweaked condition. Users trust Google (and probably other search engines, pointers to research on others are welcomed!) and it sounds like Google plans to post links to these knols on SERPs likely on top of the list so I anticipate considerable reader exposure.

I don’t have stats on this, but would be curious to know what percentage of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from search engines (and, in particular, Google referrals) vs searches on the site itself. I suspect a lot is from the former. Sure, Wikipedia is known and used by a lot of people, but I would guess most still just turn to a search engine with many queries instead of going to Wikipedia directly so if the Wikipedia links started to show up lower on the SERPs replaced by a similarly relevant (or even just seemingly similarly relevant) page then Wikipedia would start losing audience share.

This brings us to the second point: What about quality? This one is trickier, and certainly not to be confused with relevance or popularity per se, since we know full well from lots of other examples that most relevant or highest quality doesn’t necessarily beat out sites popular for other reasons.

The announcement states the following: “Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject.”

So then what? How does Google decide which entry about some topic should be ranked higher on a SERP? Is it based on comments? The quality or the quantity of comments? The rating the entry received? Whose rating? The following important point is not clear from the announcement (either for knol authors or commenters): do people have to be registered with some verified name to rate and comment? Who verifies and how?

Related: whom is the service most likely to attract as potential contributors? Can we expect the most knowledgable experts to contribute? Why might they? The example piece they showcase seems pretty extensive. Is that the best use of my time for some topic in which I am an expert? It might be once there is a critical mass of people using the service, but will there be if the people contributing aren’t necessarily experts? (Sure, I know you don’t need experts for popularity, but I still wanted to raise the issue.)

While the option of commenting is there, whatever is in the core article will get the most attention. I suspect few will care to read the comments, especially if they are just looking for some basic information about something. What this implies is that despite rating and comments, misinformatin could still remain relevant. (I understand that presumably Google will try to figure the ratings and comments into its search algorithm, but how?)

There is so much information out there already (ironically, part of the motivation for all this, isn’t it?). Much of it is very good while, of course, much of it is not. Won’t we see a lot of replication this way? Many people go to WebMD for medical issues, and likely get reliable information. Now such material will be replicated (not word-for-word per se, but in many cases I’m assuming close) on a google.com domain. Sure, Google gets more traffic, but I don’t quite see why the information will necessarily be better than what’s already out there in many forms (dependent on the topic, of course) for the reader.

Which brings us to my third point: because this information will be on a google.com domain, if you are logged into your Google Account (e.g., using GMail) then Google will have more information on what topics you’re exploring, what articles you’re reading thereby adding to the extensive profile they already have about you. Under current circumstances, they know what you search for, but unless the page you follow uses Google Analytics, they don’t know where you go from there. Now they will.

Finally, the whole thing reminds me of Google Base a little, one of Google’s initiatives that didn’t seem to take off too widely. Obviously, knols have all sorts of other features, but the basic idea of putting our content on a google.com domain is there. That one didn’t overwhelm search results so likely for that reason it didn’t seem to go very far. But if Google searches start featuring knols in prominent positions and given the new service’s community aspects that many people seem to appreciate, with the right level of exposure these knols may have the potential to gain considerable popularity.

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