Google Knol/Wikipedia Comparison Faulty

The job of a journalist is hard. New subjects crop up each day, and the task by the deadline is to demystify a topic for the general public. A common technique is to use familiar markers to interpret new ones. Give the reader something they know to help understand things they don’t: “The KitchenAid stand mixer is the Cadillac of cooking equipment,” or “The new Blackberry Curve is the answer to the iPhone.”

But the seduction of this technique poses some serious problems.

This has been the case with Google’s new offering called Knol, the so-called “Wikipedia rival,” which is meant to “highlight authors” creating user-generated content.

The recent general reporting around Google Knol has been rather atrocious. For the lack of any better metaphors, most journalists (including professional “tech journalists”) saw the “user created” part of Knol and lacking any significant understanding about either project, immediately labeled it a “Wikipedia rival.” A quick Yahoo News and Google News search sees an overwhelming number of headlines trumpeting Knol as this Wikipedia “rival” or Google’s “answer” to the free encyclopedia.

But besides simplistically sharing a “user generated” Web 2.0 pedigree, the comparison is flawed in so many ways.

The head-to-head matchup seems obvious because Wikipedia is the only thing that immediately comes to mind to most writers when thinking “user generated.” I contend it’s lazy journalism, where respected tech outlets also fell for this trap. It seems it was too tempting to stick by the story, portraying nonprofit David competing against corporate search king Goliath.

The result, is we’re stuck with this fallacious “media narrative.” And from now on, Knol will always be seen as Wikipedia’s foil. Even when it’s not.

Have you heard of Associated Content, Squidoo, Helium or WikiHow? No? If you haven’t, you shouldn’t be writing about Google Knol. These are exactly the working models that Google Knol is up against, not Wikipedia’s.

To see exactly why Wikipedia is such a bad comparison, consider the main aspects of Google Knol [1] [2]:

  • Goal: “first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read”
  • Articles are controlled by a single author, who has to use a real name.
  • Collaboration: at the discretion of the lead author aka “moderated collaboration”
  • Opinions are allowed and encouraged in articles, and there can be competing articles about the same subject.
  • Knol may include ads at the discretion of the author, and profits shared
  • Licensing of content is varied: can be CC-BY, CC-BY noncommercial, or traditional copyright
  • “Google will not serve as an editor in any way”
  • “So what subjects can I write on? (Almost) anything you like. You pick the subject and write it the way you see fit.”

As a result, most of the content that has emerged so far resemble the “practical” content sites as listed above:
how-to guides, health and medical advice, consumer/buyers guides, business/career pointers. These are exactly the things Wikipedia has insisted it does not want to be.

Don’t take my word for it, see the guidelines at [[What_Wikipedia_is_not]]

  • Wikipedia is not a manual, guidebook, or textbook…
    • A Wikipedia article should not read like a how-to style manual of instructions, advice (legal, medical, or otherwise) or suggestions, or contain how-tos. This includes tutorials, walk-throughs, instruction manuals, game guides, and recipes.[4] If you are interested in a how-to style manual, you may want to look at wikiHow or our sister project Wikibooks.

The guidelines of Wikipedia also prohibit: personal essays, advocacy, opinion pieces on current affairs or politics, scandal mongering or gossip columns and self promotion.

Although Knol has been touted as a more responsible, moderated Wikipedia the above policies actually makes Knol much more liberal and uncontrolled than Wikipedia, which has many guidelines about what constitutes an article, what is acceptable content, and how to abide by its neutral point of view policy.

By throttling collaboration through a single lead author, you lose what has been Wikipedia’s hallmaark — the “piranha effect” of people building off each others’ work and evolving content beyond a single author’s knowledge.

Let’s put these criteria up side by side again:

Google Knol Wikipedia
Barrier to entry High
Real names
Authorship Single Multiple
Personal opinion Yes No
Multiple similar articles Yes No
Deletion/editing among articles No Yes
Copyright Variable Free, GFDL

Let me pull out my journalism professor’s ruler and whap all the tech journalists on the wrist who have used this comparison. Let’s please stop pitting these two against each other.
From my feed of Yahoo News reporting on Wikipedia and Knol, here are my three tier ratings of how folks did on this story. I will not even bother hyperlinking to the stories I considered faulty analysis.

  • Google launches Wikipedia rival Knol (ZDNet UK)
  • Google Launches Its Challenge To Wikipedia With Wide Release Of Knol ( via Yahoo! Finance)
  • Google’s Wikipedia rival, Knol, goes public (CNET)
  • Google Launches Its Challenge To Wikipedia With Wide Release Of Knol (CBS News)
  • Google launches Wikipedia rival (IT World)
  • Knol: Google Takes on Wikipedia (ReadWriteWeb)
  • Knol, Google’s Version of Wikipedia, Goes Public (PC Magazine)
  • Knol: (n.) Google’s version of Wikipedia (BetaNews)
  • Google infiltrates the knowledge sharing game (SiliconIndia)
  • Google unveils Wikipedia-like tool (Australian IT)


  • Google’s Knol Launches: Like Wikipedia, With Moderation (Search Engine Land)
  • Wikipedia, Meet Knol (New York Times)
  • Google Launches Knol, The Monetizable Wikipedia (TechCrunch)
  • Google Makes Knol Publically Available (EContent Magazine)


And for those still debating the quality of “blogging vs journalism” issue, consider all the best sources for reporting on the Knol launch are, yes, blogs.

41 thoughts on “Google Knol/Wikipedia Comparison Faulty

  1. Hm, is Wikipedia really the David in this story?

    I thought we were the Goliath of information-based high-ranked search results — and that’s what the basis of the comparison was, rather than the actual content and their models as they stand.

    Also, are you sure you got the “barrier to entry” fields in that table the right way around?

    I just wrote a Knol in about 3 clicks (I already have a google account). It doesn’t seem to me like you need to verify your name. It has a WYSIWYG-like interface.

    Sure, anyone can edit Wikipedia without even getting an account, but is there edit going to be there a day later? Surely that is a better test of “barrier to entry”.

  2. Brianna, yes you have a good point, perhaps it’s Wikipedia which is the Goliath in terms of content and ranking, but in terms of monetary resources, Google’s the big guy.

    As for ‘barrier to entry’ I think Wikipedia’s barrier to entry is low, but the ‘barrier to stay’ is tougher. That is, as you say, it can be a pretty unwelcoming and jarring experience when your edits are wiped out and a rude message left on your User_Talk page.

    There was talk about having to verify with a credit card for Knol writers, but that may just be the case for folks who want to share in ad revenue, or to be considered “Verified” as I’ve seen on some of the profiles of authors.

  3. Have you ever read Wikipedia? The vandalism that goes uncorrected for months? The abysmal quality of some major-topic articles? The controversial articles stuffed with citation-needed tags (which stay there for years)? Have you ever looked at their Byzantine dispute procedures?

    Throttling collaboration is exactly what’s needed, because the collaboration at Wikipedia is unwanted. Imagine you were writing a PhD thesis, and every night the university obliged you to leave your notes in a park, so that passers-by could scrawl on them and tear off pieces. Would that motivate you to finish the thesis, or would you find another university?

  4. I think what-knol-is as defined by its interface and what-google-wants-knol-to-be are going to bump up against each other pretty hard, if they haven’t already. I really think Google wanted a Wikipedia-style canonical resource, except with multiple articles about each topic.

  5. Paul: Vandalism that goes uncorrected for months? Haven’t seen any; vandalism is usually corrected within hours or minutes. Bad quality of major-topic articles? No, I think there pretty good. Could you provide examples?

  6. Here’s the basic reason that some are making the Wikipedia/Knol comparison: Search results. Are Knol’s encyclopedic articles appearing high in search results or is it third-party encyclopedic articles?

    At stake is Google’s neutrality towards any form of third party content in its search results, no matter how that content is created. Which is why I think your criticism, here, misses the point.

    Wikipedia is the prevalent third-party source for encyclopedic article, even though — as you point out — that site and Knol work in somewhat different ways.

    Tech reporters gloss over the differences between Wikipedia and Knol so they can most efficiently explain the significance of Google’s launch.

    As someone who has covered Associated Content, Mahalo and the various other forms of user-generated sites out there, I’m not going to fault any reporter on the Wikipedia-Knol comparison. That is, *unless* they miss the real story about Google potentially undermining its neutrality.

  7. Eric, thanks for the comment. However, I don’t agree with your reasoning that reporters have made the Knol/Wikipedia comparison because they have thought of the second-level argument that there may be some fiddling with the “neutrality” of PageRank. It’s not borne out by the text of the reporting, and it’s not a concern commentators have made in the articles I noted as “bad”.

    Google has always said it lives and dies by the PageRank algorithm. It has many times said it doesn’t salt it with exceptions for its own preferences. This was quite plainly shown by the case of the Goolge search results of “jew” coming up pointing #1 to JewWatch, an antisemitic site. At the time Google put out this statement basically saying, as tasteless as it is, they have to stand by the algorithm.

    They made clear: “The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results… Google views the comprehensiveness of our search results as an extremely important priority.”

    Also, from Wired: “Google says that knols will get no special favors when its algorithms choose results, but clearly expects the best efforts to rocket towards the top of search results. Maybe even ahead of the ubiquitous Wikipedia items.”

    Logically, it would not make sense for Google to artificially push the PageRank of this nascent Knol project when they are under a public microscope.

    To me, it’s Occam’s razor at work. Most of the observations about Knol/Wikipedia were not sophisticated ones. Rather it was a simplistic understanding of “usergen” and roping the two into the same category and working model.

    That said, the folks at Google Knol won’t be standing still. There may in fact be ways to create forms of collaboration that resemble the early pioneering days of Wikipedia. But given the current parameters, it’s not really in that position.

  8. This post is analogous to saying Google News shouldn’t be compared to Yahoo! News or Brittanica shouldn’t be compared Wikipedia because THEIR IMPLEMENTATION IS DIFFERENT even though the value they intend to provide to end users is the same. Maybe I also shouldn’t compare a Prius and a Mini Cooper if I want a more fuel efficient car because they aren’t both hybrids? Yeah, gotcha.

    I’m glad most journalists don’t go to the ridiculous hair splitting lengths that geeks consider a virtue when writing news articles.

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  10. An interesting point of view. But I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. Wikipedia is one of the 10 most visited sites–it’s where people go to learn about almost anything. Knol is aiming for a piece of that. Different “working model”? Sure. But do readers care? No. And that’s what really matters here.

    i.e., what Dare Obasanjo said.

  11. Dare, re: hairsplitting, consider your two examples.

    - Yahoo News and Google News.
    Comparing news aggregator to news aggregator seems like a valid exercise.

    - Encyclopedia Britannica vs Wikipedia.
    A case of one encyclopedia versus another encyclopedia.

    - Knol vs Wikipedia?
    Knol never described itself as an encyclopedia, does not have a controlled vocabulary of topics like one, does not attempt to strive for objectivity and invites opinion. Is your argument then that this is an apples-to-apples comparison like the two above?

    To take your car analogy, I think it is in fact valid to compare a Prius to a Mini Cooper, or a Honda CRX. They are all valid forms of street transport with gasoline engines as part of the powertrain. Instead, I would consider Knol vs. Wikipedia more like comparing a ultralight aircraft to a Prius.

  12. Andrew, whether or not you believe in principle that Google manipulates its PageRank algorithm, there is a *lot* of anecdotal evidence that Knol pages are quickly appearing at or near the top of search results. That’s what my blog and plenty of others I’ve read are reporting. This affects every other organization that relies in any way on search results. Wikipedia, Associated Content, etc. are all on the list of affected companies.

  13. Is “Knol is the new wikipedia” the new “google is the new microsoft”? The answer is no. But it’s possible that “Knol is the new wikipedia” the new “google is the new microsoft” is the new black is the new black. :P

    Also, the Knol pages that are near the top of the google listings were all pages features Knol’s front page. That page itself was linked to everywhere, so it has huge pagerank.

    For example, here’s a yahoo search that puts a knol result near the top.

  14. You know what? I totally messed that post up. Let’s try again.

    - – - -

    Is “Knol is the new wikipedia” the new “google is the new microsoft”? The answer is no. But it’s possible that “Knol is the new wikipedia” is the new “google is the new microsoft” is the new black is the new black. :P

    Also — yes, some knols turn up high in the google results. But the only Knols that do this were ones that were featured on the Knol front page — which has just huge, huge pagerank, since everyone’s been linking to it.

    Here’s a yahoo search that puts a knol result near the top.

  15. Great post.

    Daniel Tunkelang does make a good point that at the end of the day the competition is for mindshare and eyeballs, … it wouldn’t be the first time that something was replaced by something mostly unlike it.

    … but at the same time there are many other services which similar to Knol which have failed to gain serious traction. Though none of them have had Google’s funding or Google’s potential ability to leverage a near monopoly position in search.

    I think think now is a great time for Wikipedia to consider its unique characteristics and advantages and figure out how to maximize them and demonstrate their value. I know that I would certainly be sad if a resource that didn’t try to follow NPOV won out over Wikipedia for the basic-research spot in the public’s mind.

    As an aside, I think the best comparison to Knol is one that you didn’t mention: Everything2.

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  20. Thank you for the great comparison of knol and wikipedia. Today I have been the first time on the knol website – and I have realized that the posts there are more reliable than they are in wikipedia. For people who are working on academic level it was not possible to refer to wikipedia. But with knol knowledge sharing over the internet will become more reliable. I hope that it will become as successful as wikipedia.

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