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Will Google search favor Google content?

The search giant’s new online encyclopedia raises concerns about conflict of interest.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2008

‘I would prefer that a search engine keep church and state separate,' says Jay Bhatti, cofounder, (not pictured).

Paul Sakuma/AP/file


Oakland, Calif.

On the Google scale of projects, the search giant’s newly launched online encyclopedia Knol ranks as relatively minor. But for some, it’s a stretch – not technologically, but ethically.

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Google has over the years expanded its Web presence beyond the familiar search box. With each foray into content, it raises concerns about conflict of interest with its original function as unbiased search engine – concerns that Google search would be disposed to point to Google content first.

“This is a step too far,” says Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land. “Google’s job started out being a service that points people to other information, and that remains their primary job – not to be providing the information themselves.”

The company now controls the leading online video site YouTube, owns a major blogging platform, and has advertising inventory on millions of external pages thanks to AdSense and DoubleClick.

Like most search engines, Google keeps secret the algorithms that rank search results, meaning that users are left to trust the company not to favor its own burgeoning content over others.

“I would prefer that a search engine keep church and state separate,” says Jay Bhatti, co-founder of, a people search engine. “You can’t choose to be a content creator as well as a content aggregator that impartially sends people to data sources. It’s very tough.”

Google has moved into some areas of content because few other companies can undertake projects of such scale, such as digitizing the world’s books. Other times, it dabbles in publishing mainly to improve its search functionality.

In the case of Knol, says Mr. Sullivan, the project overlaps needlessly with existing online encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, Citizendium, and Squidoo.
“They really didn’t need to do Knol,” says Sullivan. “What you really want sometimes is for Google to say no to itself.”

A Wikipedia alternative
Launched in beta form two weeks ago, Knol allows anyone to write encyclopedia pages. Unlike Wikipedia, each page, or knol, will have a signed author and may include his or her point of view. Outsiders can make edits if approved by the author. The setup fixes some perceived weaknesses of Wikipedia, namely the blandness of group writing and the ability of vandals to wreck an entry.

Another difference: The author may put advertising on the knol, with revenues shared by the author and Google.

Within days of Knol’s launch, some knols showed up in Google’s top 10 search results for certain keyword queries – something observers like Sullivan consider an unusually rapid rise to prominence.

Other red flags went up. Search expert Aaron Wall demonstrated that content could be “scraped” off another page – say from Wikipedia – dumped onto a knol, and show up higher on Google’s search results than the original. What’s more, a Google algorithm clearly noted the original page, but still ranked the knol higher.