A Few Thoughts On Google Knol

News of Google most recent project, Knol, came out late last Thursday without, as far as I can tell, much in the way of press pre-briefings. All the major publications were late to the story. Blogs hit it fast, but had nothing to go on other than the brief blog post put up by Google’s Udi Manber announcing the project. Our initial story on Knol is here.

From a product perspective, Knol is not much different than existing products like Squidoo and Hubpages. It’s a new knowledge base for authors. Anyone, eventually, will be able to write on any topic they choose. Google will provide authoring tools, store the information, allow others to comment and suggest edits, add ads with the author’s approval, and provide traffic via their search engine.

But Knol isn’t really aimed at Squidoo and Hubpages. It’s much more likely that Google is jealously eyeing the massive traffic that flows through its search engine to Wikipedia. As Nick Carr has noted, Wikipedia continues to climb and climb in search results for many top search terms.

More Ad Inventory Needed, ASAP

Wikipedia, a non-profit, has stubbornly resisted any efforts to monetize its pages. Google would kill to supply ads to Wikipedia. Barring that, competing with them makes a lot of sense.

Google needs to grow revenue to support their valuation. And for that, they need ad inventory. It wasn’t surprising when Google started hosting news directly and allowing comments (that = page views). So the idea of them hosting a knowledge base shouldn’t be surprising, either.

Authors have a choice – they can have ads or not. But if they have ads, they can only choose Google. Many authors are going to include ads, and Google will get extra inventory.

Delicious Timing

Wikipedia has caused more problems than just refusing to take Google’s ads. They are also launching a much anticipated search engine this month via their for-profit arm, Wikia (Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hates it when Wikia is called that, but it’s damned hard to tell where Wikipedia ends and Wikia begins sometimes). Google isn’t likely to be particularly scared of Wikia’s new search engine, but it has probably been a little annoying for them to watch all the press about the upcoming “Google Killer.”

Google doesn’t usually pre-announce products before launch. in this case they did. Why? Perhaps as a reminder to Wikipedia that competition can flow both ways.

Anyone Remember Google Base?

As a content management system, Knol is a kissing cousin to Google Base, a classified ad platform that Google launched in late 2005. Google Base has gone exactly nowhere – if anything it’s a spam farm and nothing more. But at the time of its launch the New York Times and others heralded it as a major disruptive force to the classified ads world. Knol may be Google Base with a little more strategic thought applied.

No Conflicts Here, Move Along

Google says that Knol pages will be indexed into their search engine but will have no special ranking. That’s a little bit untrue, since they’ll be hosted by Google and will have the advantage of Google’s hefty PageRank to lift them in search results. And since no one will be auditing Google to ensure that Knol pages are treated just like everyone else, there are bound to be claims of conflict of interest. The fact is, Google will make money from Knol, and so they’ll have a financial interest in moving people to those pages. That makes them less believable in the role of a neutral gatekeeper.

Google is now synonymous with search. Offering Google Knol and putting it in the search results is analogous to Microsoft offering Office for the Windows platform. Sure, anyone can compete with Office, but Microsoft has a natural advantage and finds ways of keeping market share. The Knol team will likely do the same over time.

Wikipedia v. Knol

Wikipedia gets massive support from the community because it’s non-profit. Google can’t compete with that, so they’re focusing on putting the authors’ names in lights and giving them a little cash on the side, too. That should help them pull some heavy Wikipedia contributors over to their project.

Very soon we are going to see a lot of Wikipedia content moving wholesale to Knol. Wikipedia content is basically free to use, redistribute, copy, whatever, under the GNU license:

All text in Wikipedia is covered by GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), a copyleft license permitting the redistribution, creation of derivative works, and commercial use of content while authors retain copyright of their work.

Anyone writing for Knol is likely to at least peruse Wikipedia content before publishing. And if they see anything good, they are at liberty to simply lift and copy it over to Knol, and get a adsense check for their time.

So, in a way, Google has found a way to monetize Wikipedia content after all.

In a poll on Friday
, TechCrunch readers narrowly said Google hasn’t overstepped its boundaries with Knol. If Knol is a success, those results may be a little different a year from now. In fact, the more successful Knol is, the more uncomfortable people are going to be with Google as gatekeeper and content provider.