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.

Filed Under: knol, wikipedia

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  1. identicon
    Tim, 24 Feb 2008 @ 11:45pm

    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.

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