Why Google Knol Has Failed

google-knol-logo.jpgIt may be too early to say with 100% certainty that Google Knol has utterly failed. The site has been out just shy of two months and has actually attracted a great deal of content.

However, as a recent article on The Slate has shown, Knol has not exactly emerged into the Wikipedia-killer it was hyped up to be. The article sites rampant plagiarism, poorly-written articles and poorly-sourced facts as some of Knol’s signs of inferiority.

So, even if it is not time yet to truly call Knol a failure, we’re clearly to a point where we can start talking about what has gone wrong and what Google can do to fix it.

Unfortunately, the problems with Knol seem to be fundamental ones with the service itself and are not things that Google can fix easily. In short, if Google Knol is to become competitive with Wikipedia, or even blogs in general, it can not be the Knol we all know and despise.

Knowledge Gone Astray

google-knol-2.jpgThe Slate article points to two critical differences between Wikipedia and Knol that seems to hinder Knol’s success.

  1. Lack of Community Support: In order to edit an existing Knol, you have to get approval from the original author, this reduces community involvement and puts anonymous editors at the mercy of the “experts” that wrote the article.
  2. Repetition: Since articles cannot be easily edited, people tend to upload their own articles rather than try to build off ones that exist, this leads to topics with dozens of competing articles.
  3. Advertising Reward: Google allowed submitters to earn money from their content by means of advertising. This attracted people with bad intentions to the site.

Strangely, I have to agree with all of these problems. When I first wrote about the site, I noted that it was a service practically asking to be spammed and, according to my two-week follow-up, I was right.

However, none of these problems with the site really cut to the core. Google has made some tactical mistakes with Knol but it has made a much larger one in its concept that will sink it no matter what other changes they make.

The Problem is QUALITY

google-knol-3.jpgA three-word summary of Knol would likely read “Quantity over Quality”.

Google, as a search engine company, approached the problem of creating an encyclopedia much like you would expect. They set up the rules of Knol in such a way that it would encourage as much content as possible to be uploaded to the service.

Then, according to the theory, a combination of human ratings and search algorithms would pluck the best results, rewarding those who knew wrote the most authoritative articles.

Unfortunately, the theory is flawed beyond all recognition. Consider these problems:

  • Search is Stupid: As Google’s traditional Internet search has shown, algorithms are mediocre, at best, at locating the authoritative sites. Google Knol, despite the controlled environment, does not seem to improve upon this.
  • Humans Aren’t Much Better: Humans that use Knol are trying to find out information they don’t know. They are in almost no position to judge how authoritative an article is. Most humans will not check sources or verify what they read, meaning an authoritative-sounding pile of lies has a better chance of success than a more meek, factual article.
  • Spammers Can Game the System: Not only can spammers easily upload articles to Google Knol, but they can game the system to vote for themselves and feign broad user support. They do this already with blogs using inbound links but the controlled environment of Knol actually makes it easier.
  • Terms are More Important Than Being Number One: As with the Internet at large, you can gain more reward being number 10 for a popular keyword than being number one on a lesser-known one. Though this increases competition on popular keywords, it rewards mediocre content on popular phrases more than robust knowledge on all topics.
  • The 95% Problem: The biggest problem, however, is that even if the theory worked perfectly, most of the content on Knol would be complete and utter garbage. Though the good stuff might be at the top, it doesn’t take much for users to sink into the cesspool that is below. This colors the experience, hurts the reputation of the good articles and makes people distrust Knol as a source of information.

The end result of this is not that Google has created its own Wikipedia, instead, Google has created its own miniature Internet where they set the rules.

The problem is that this new Web offers no compelling reasons for creators or visitors to access it. Creators can make more money and get more traffic running a traditional blog while visitors have the same access to quality information outside of Google’s walled garden.

The end result is that Knol has created a service that benefits no one but the spammers that abuse it. As such, Knol has virtually seals its own fate unless it can turn that around.

Fixing Knol

I would argue that, with its current mission statement, Knol can’t be fixed. The problems that plague Knol are ones that exist on the Web at large, but Knol’s close proximity to Google’s heart amplifies all of these issues and makes it easier for those that wish to abuse the service.

In order to fix Knol, Google needs to step away from this idea that Knol is meant to be the anti-Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia has its problems and certainly isn’t a reliable source, it is both more useful and more reliable than Knol.

For all that Wikipedia has done wrong, it has done a fair amount right including build a huge community, produce an incredibly large number of entries, work to enforce a quality standard and keep itself moving forward. Sure, it makes mistakes, has vandals and can be a cesspool in places, it isn’t spinning its wheels with endless repetition of the same information.

Google, to beat Wikipedia cannot throw out what it does well in a bid to oppose it. Beating something does not mean being its foil. It means doing what it does better.

Knol’s premise is simply not as good as Wikipedia’s. It is time for Google to go back to the drawing board and figure out not what it can do different, but what it needs to do the same and then what it can improve.

Conclusions

For those of us who don’t use Knol, the failure of the service is actually good news. After all, it was our content that was making up so many of the plagiarized pages on the service. Knol’s failure to gain any traction in the past two months is a positive sign indicating that, while it is certainly an ideal for spammers, it is unlikely that they will get much out of it.

This means that Google’s failure could, in the long run, work to our benefit. However, until Knol has been proved to be completely useless for the spammers, it is likely that they will continue to pound away on it.

After all, if there is even a drop of benefit to be gained, the spammers will continue to try. They don’t invest anything in their efforts, other than setting up their computers and letting them go.

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