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
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2008 @ 3:04pm

    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.

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