Why Wikipedia's Competitors Are Failing, And Why Knol Might Not

from the the-knolipedia dept

With the possible exception of our allegedly-sexual-predator-filled social networks, it seems safe to say that there’s no internet phenomenon that causes quite as much finger-wagging consternation as Wikipedia. Is it credible? Complete? A worthy reference material? Personally, I’m content to leave these questions to the world’s concerned librarians.

One thing that’s not in question is whether Wikipedia is successful. But why aren’t its competitors? Linux News’ Mick O’Leary discussed the issue yesterday, specifically examining why Veropedia and Citizendium‘s efforts to improve upon Wikipedia don’t show much promise for attracting a following. O’Leary’s diagnosis of the problems with the sites’ underlying models is almost beside the point: despite Wikipedia’s content being reproducible under a GPL-like license, neither project has decided to use a forked Wikipedia as a starting point. As a result they simply don’t have the content to count as a viable alternative.

But, as Bennett Haselton convincingly argued on Slashdot last week, this is a problem that Google’s upcoming Knol initiative is unlikely to face. The prospect of ad revenue (and page views supplied by a presumably friendly PageRank) will no doubt prompt a flurry of copy & pasting from Wikipedia. And although Google’s Knol announcement is a little vague, their professed light-touch approach to content sounds likely to make Wikipedia-licensed content okay for Knol. Even without an automated forking process, it seems certain that Knol will wind up mirroring large parts of Wikipedia.

But after that initial land-grab will Knol be able to take the ball from Jimmy Wales’ leviathan and run with it? It depends what Google is banking on. Veropedia and Citizendium’s examples strongly imply that Knol’s focus on authorial accountability won’t be the deciding factor in its success. A human name and grinning headshot may be more immediately comforting than an inscrutable pseudonym, but they only confer modestly more meaningful vetting opportunities than does Wikipedia’s contribution-tracking system. Seriously evaluating an author’s background, perspective and credibility will be a time-consuming task no matter what the underlying system is.

But if Knol instead relies on Google’s built-in promotional advantages — aka search result dirty tricks — it’s got a real shot. Wikipedia is proof that a wiki reference tool’s value is largely derived from the network effects it enjoys, and currently most of those effects are driven by the site’s high placement in search results. What will happen if Google decides to put Knol on an equal footing? Given Wikipedia’s liberal licensing scheme and Knol’s plan for more aggressively attracting content, the coming wiki showdown may wind up being decided by pure brand power more than anything else.

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Comments on “Why Wikipedia's Competitors Are Failing, And Why Knol Might Not”

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18 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

I doubt Google will exploit the fact they own the search results very much. Try googling some of the things google runs. Sometimes they show up in the top 5, sometimes they don’t. They never show up in the ‘payed to be here’ slot.

Searching for e-mail is a good example. Shows up in the top 5. If you search for web mail however it doesn’t show up on the first page (didn’t for me when I just tried it).

Oh and Wikipedia shows up on the first page, but not in the number one slot unless you search for “wiki.” Hell, it wasn’t in the top 3 slots.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wikipedia’s search system has always confused me. Miss a single letter, or misspell a word by one or two letters, and it completely misses the thing you’re searching for, sometimes doesn’t even give it as an option. Which is really annoying if you hear something interesting sounding in conversation somewhere and aren’t sure how to spell it.

Surely adding some kind of spell-checker system in there can’t be *that* hard? Even IMDB will give closest matches to words spelled wrong, so why does Wikipedia’s search suck so much?

Steve says:

@ anonymous coward #2

I agree. I’d love to see a “did you mean…?” on wikipedia.
And I no longer trust Wikipedia anyway, after a little experiment. I anonymously edited Eric Clapton’s entry, stating that he used to play the marimba when he was a kid, and that information is still on there – over a year later.

Wanted to let you know about a newsreader out there that exists that bases it’s content on what the user actually WANTS to see. It’s called ‘Sprout’. Very intuitive, quickly learns what you like to read and what doesn’t interest you. There’s a free trial on now. You can find it here: http://www.yoursprout.ca.

ranon says:

I dint think that Google is going to devalue it’s search brand in promoting Knol. If Knol can stand on it’s own the search will reflect that, but there is no way that Google is going to throw away it’s search result integrity.

I have serious reservations about Knol. Basically, I would trust wikipedia more than a single person. Wikipedia has defined mechanisms which foster that trust. Neutral Point of View etc. A single person making a page will be inherently less trustworthy. Much will depend on the way that Google structures the whole thing.

Nihiltres (profile) says:

Wikipedia's secret, Copycats suck, and addressing

Although surely some people will copy stuff from Wikipedia to Knol, as long as Google doesn’t specifically favour Knol, Wikipedia will still rank higher in the search results than equivalent Knol pages. The reason for this is simple: Wikipedia’s pages benefit from a huge network effect: each article, on average, links to at least 20 others. With each article ranking well in search results on its own merits, Google’s algorithm clearly favours (though perhaps not intentionally) Wikipedia’s layout, as each high-ranking page favours other high-ranking pages, pushing them to the top. When articles are copied to Knol, I doubt that they will link to other Knol articles. Without the network effect, Knol’s pages aren’t likely to rank as high.

What I’m not looking forward to in terms of the copying is that when people copy articles, they’re unlikely to obey the few restrictions that the GFDL license used by Wikipedia enforces: I know that I will be annoyed when my work turns up on Knol without any credit to me, and I plan to send DMCA takedown emails to anyone I find is copying an article I’ve edited and not crediting at very least Wikipedia (which is a violation of the terms of the GFDL, which requires attribution of the work to the author(s)). I may not get anything from editing Wikipedia except pleasure, but no one should be able to claim my work as their own, let alone earn money from doing so.

As for the above comment about Wikipedia’s search system: donate enough to Wikipedia and maybe we can devote a new server to the massive amount of indexing this would entail, since content changes so quickly.

BadBot says:

copycats

I am dearly hoping that copying Wiki content to Knol will be hard.

I really love Wikipedia. Yes, I have seen numerous errors before, but it’s great for getting a quick idea on a subject. If one uses good reasoning, they will concentrate mainly on the central idea of Wiki articles and not the nuances, which are more susceptible to errors.

While my contributions to Wiki are imperceptible at best, I know of many people who have spent countless hours of their free time perfecting Wiki articles.

I’d hate to see such people’s works copied and worse, monetized by Knol or otherwise.

Tim says:

Knol + Google Library

One thing I think everyone has missed in the discussion of Knol is the possibility that this is part of a greater plan tied to Google’s library project. Google has already digitized hundreds of thousands of volumes from university libraries. Even if, under complaints from publishers, they remove those from view, they still have it in their database. That provides an enormous amount of information that can be datamined; what subjects a person has published on, in what peer-reviewed journals or university presses, and how often its been cited by other authors, etc.

Remember, the very foundation of the Google Page Rank algorithm was the work done in academia that showed that the authority of a work could be determined by the frequency that it was cited by others in the field. Thus using the data mined from the Google Library project, they can begin to incorporate offline data to add an ‘expertise’ tweak to the Page Rank algorithm. Doing this would make the Knols written by Dr. Ima Expert, Ph.D., LDD, DDS, appear higher in the results than Wikipedia, while those written by Joe Blow in his mom’s basement would fade to obscurity in the back of the pack. In that way, Google could promote Knol over Wikipedia while not damaging the overall integrity of Page Rank.

I admit, I have absolutely no proof that this is what Google is doing, but it makes so much sense that I’m surprised no one else has suggested it that I’ve seen.

Tim says:

Knol + Google Library

One thing I think everyone has missed in the discussion of Knol is the possibility that this is part of a greater plan tied to Google’s library project. Google has already digitized hundreds of thousands of volumes from university libraries. Even if, under complaints from publishers, they remove those from view, they still have it in their database. That provides an enormous amount of information that can be datamined; what subjects a person has published on, in what peer-reviewed journals or university presses, and how often its been cited by other authors, etc.

Remember, the very foundation of the Google Page Rank algorithm was the work done in academia that showed that the authority of a work could be determined by the frequency that it was cited by others in the field. Thus using the data mined from the Google Library project, they can begin to incorporate offline data to add an ‘expertise’ tweak to the Page Rank algorithm. Doing this would make the Knols written by Dr. Ima Expert, Ph.D., LDD, DDS, appear higher in the results than Wikipedia, while those written by Joe Blow in his mom’s basement would fade to obscurity in the back of the pack. In that way, Google could promote Knol over Wikipedia while not damaging the overall integrity of Page Rank.

I admit, I have absolutely no proof that this is what Google is doing, but it makes so much sense that I’m surprised no one else has suggested it that I’ve seen.

Puchiko says:

Did you mean...

Wikipedia uses the Mayflower search engine, which has a “Did you mean…” feature. However, this feature is turned off for Wikipedia. Why? It’s expensive as far as server load is concerned-Wikipedia just doesn’t have the money.

We try to direct you to the correct pages using “redirects”. Here’s how it works. If I know people searching for “Adolph Hitler” were probably looking for “Adolf Hitler” I create a redirect from “Adolph Hitler”. So if you type “Adolph Hitler” into the search box, you’ll instantly find yourself at “Adolf Hitler”

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