12/15/07

Google Announces KNOL - Is it a Good Thing, or An Expanding Tool of Evil?

We all know that Google is against Evil: it's part of their posted Corporate Philosophy (see no. 6).

So, yesterday's announcement -- of Google's latest offering, KNOL -- must be a good thing, right? Well, let's ponder this for a moment.

Considering the Source

There are folk out there that just don't trust Google. Last year, Adam Penenberg's well written article at MotherJones.Com described Google as "...the greatest threat to privacy ever known, a vast informational honey pot that attracts hackers, crackers, online thieves, and—perhaps most worrisome of all—a government intent on finding convenient ways to spy on its own citizenry." (I just love how he used the phrase 'honey pot,' don't you?)

There are even websites created and maintained solely for the purpose of monitoring Google as an evildoer, including GoogleWatch.Org and IsGoogleEvil.Com.

GoogleWatch doesn't believe that Google is pure evil, but does state that Google is a "privacy time bomb," and gives some pretty scary arguments supporting its position. They report things like Google hires spooks (Google engineer Matt Cutts used to work for the National Security Agency) and Google records everything it can and doesn't tell what all it knows.

IsGoogleEvil.Com hasn't posted in a year, but their blog has lots of stuff that still makes valid points, like (1) everytime you use your Google Toolbar, Google's expanding its stored information on you, along with the sites you surf; and (2) it's possible that Google can database your hard drive with its Desktop Search feature.

Considering KNOL

First, here's what Google has to say about its new venture: "We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal."

With KNOL, separate web pages will appear on specific topics with the author being credited for their creation and content. There can be many KNOLs (knols being used as "units of knowledge") on the same topic, and one author can create as many KNOLs as she likes.

It will be free. It will come with lots of helpful tools to make the KNOLs "well organized, nicely presented, ... [with a] distinct look and feel." The author can include lots of links to other sites with info, as well as place advertising on his KNOL.

As for 2.0 issues, readers can submit comments or ask questions, as well as expanding the KNOL by offering edits or additional content. Readers will be able to rank KNOLs, and write reviews of KNOLs.

For a sample KNOL, check out this Google example by author Rachel Manber.

What's Happening Here?

There's a lot of hoopla right now that KNOL is Google's direct challenge to Wikipedia, and lots of online discussion is taking place on the viability of this threat. CNET's got Wikipedia's founder crying bring it on, and Bloomberg's just flat out labeling them direct competitors.

Personally, without having seen KNOL online yet, I don't know that we can be totally sure about KNOL's place in the world - but I tend to think it's more of a competitor to Squidoo and About.Com than Wikipedia, outright.

At Squidoo, you find author-recognized webpages on specific topics, just like KNOL promises. (Squidoo calls them "lenses.") Comments, check. Advertising, check. Ranking, check.

Over at About.Com, you've also got authors providing articles on specific topics, but not everyone is free to write an article (you have to be a selected "guide"). (Of course they're not -- About.Com is owned by The New York Times, and obviously they can't have just anyone writing for it....) However, About.Com does provide for comments, and it claims over 1.7 million articles to date.

It's true that Wikipedians sometimes jerk around and provide bad content, and an author directly responsible for content on that topic's page might serve to decrease this accuracy problem. Copyright infringement concerns could also be handled much better with an author accountable for article content.

Google may have something here, if KNOL's goal is an encyclopedic wiki of all things, everywhere. I'm especially interested in hearing what Eric Goldman has to say, since he's been betting on Wikipedia's demise by the year 2010 for several years now over at his Technology & Marketing Law blog.

However, I appreciate Wikipedia's collaborative approach and I go there all the time. Squidoo, don't go there, don't care to start. About.com, maybe. Sometimes.

I don't trust Wikipedia as more than a starting off-place (kinda like reading TexJur in my young lawyer days) but it's a good one. Google's going to have to give me a helluva lot to change that.

And, I confess that I am wondering why the heck Google sees the need to do this, anyway. Surely they've got more than enough to do when I still go to Google, Yahoo, and Ask in searching, since each engine gives me such different responses to the same query. (And, surely the Watchdogs of Evil will have their theories.)

And maybe that's all this is: two years from now, I'll go to Wikipedia and Knol just like I go to Google and Yahoo and Ask today. We'll see.
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