Google, Inc. announced Thursday that it is working on a collaborative online encyclopedia that could compete with Wikipedia, the popular user-edited encyclopedia.
The "knol" project – named for Google's shorthand for a unit of knowledge – will allow a user to create an entry on virtually any topic. Like Wikipedia, it will allow anyone to add an entry, but unlike the largely anonymous Wikipedia, it will post an author's byline and profile with each entry.
"The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors," writes Google's Udi Manber on the company's official blog:
"Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors – but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content."
To give a better sense of what a knol will look like, Manber posted a screenshot of a sample knol: an entry on insomnia written by one Rachel Manber, an expert on sleep disorders at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Another difference with Wikipedia is that readers will not be able to edit knol entries. But they will be able to rank them, and these rankings will be interpreted by Google's search engine when displaying results. Udi Manber says he expects to see competing entries on the same topic. "Competition of ideas is a good thing," he writes.
But knol authors could be competing for more than just search-engine ranking: Manber writes that author can choose to have advertising on their entries. He writes that Google will offer "a substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads." Wikipedia, by contrast, is run by a nonprofit foundation and edited entirely by unpaid volunteers.
The project is still in its beta phase and is working with writers on an invitation-only basis. Still, it has prompted speculation that this project is taking Google in a fundamentally new direction.
"Up to now, Google has won because it is the best way to navigate *other* people's information on the net," writes blogger Hugh McGuire on the Huffington Post. "Knol is a whole other level: Google becomes the producer of information." [Emphasis in original.]
McGuire describes what he sees as a "conflict of interest" in Google's dual role as a search engine and content producer, and he suspects that Google will favor its own content over other sites in its search results.
He's not the only one. Writing in Wired, reporter Betsy Schiffman asks an expert "whether Google can rank competitors objectively given that the search company may have a financial incentive to keep Google-owned content at the top of its search results."
"At the end of the day, there's a fundamental conflict between the business Google is in and its social goals," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "What you're seeing here, slowly, is Google embracing an advertising-driven model, in which money will have a greater impact on what people have ready access to."
Google says only that it will rank the knols "appropriately" when they appear in search results. Manber says that Google does not want a "walled garden of content"; it will make knols available to other search engines.
If the copyright information on Google's screenshot is any indication, knols will be copyrighted under a Creative Commons license that allows others to copy, distribute, and alter the entry, so long as the original authorship is attributed. The license is similar to Wikipedia's license.
Salon blogger Farhad Manjoo compares the screenshot with Wikipedia's corresponding entry on insomnia. He finds that while Google's efforts are more trustworthy, Wikipedia offers "a wider field of view," one that includes folk remedies and other alternative approaches to treating the disorder.
But he points out that Wikipedia's editors can always opt to add content from knols to their own entries:
If competing knols do indeed proliferate, Wikipedia would grow to include the knowledge they contain – and, in that way, it would only get stronger. The more stuff that goes online, the bigger Wikipedia grows.
So Google isn't killing Wikipedia. It's helping it.
Wikipedians, for their part, don't seem to be losing any sleep over Google's project. In an emailed statement to the Bloomberg news service, Wikipedia wrote that it welcomed the initiative. "The more good free content," the statement said, "the better for the world."