Is Google listening to the stories around Knol?

I talk a lot in this blog about how listening to stories can help companies take the pulse of users. When a new product is released, people try it out, and provide all sorts of information that’s critical to the future evolution of the product. They don’t provide this information in statistics, but in stories. If you can make sense of the stories, it can give you insight that you can use to make adjustments in functionality, customer service, technical support, pricing, and strategy (as discussed in the section on emergent strategy in “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth”).

Here’s an example of what I mean. On July 23rd, Google released Knol, a product that collects and organizes “authoritative article[s] about a specific topic,” according to the company.

Here are some blog stories that emerged after the launch:

knol: content w/out context, collaboration, capital, or coruscation
…We’re quite a few months into the Knol experiment. What I find particularly fascinating is that most of the knols that they promote on their front page are health-related, primarily by people who claim to have health-related expertise (doctors, nurses, professors) who appear to be copying/pasting from other places. Why health? What’s motivating these people to contribute? (And why are they too lazy to fix the formatting when they copy/paste from elsewhere?)

Frankly, from my POV, Knol looks like an abysmal failure. There’s no life to the content. Already articles are being forgotten and left to rot, along with a lot of other web content. There’s no common format or standards and there’s a lot more crap than gems. The incentives are all wrong and what content is emerging is limited. The expert-centric elitism is intimidating to knowledgeable folks without letters after their names and there is little reason for those of us with letters to contribute. While I don’t believe in the wisdom of a crowd of idiots, I do believe that collective creations tend to result in much better content than that which is created by an individual hermit. (Case in point: my *$#! dissertation vs. any article I’ve co-authored.)

What makes me most annoyed about Knol though is that it feels a bit icky. Wikipedia is a non-profit focused on creating a public good. Google is a for-profit entity with a lot of power in controlling where on the web people go. Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?… (full post here)

Knol for Google: It Is Not Evil, It Is Business
Google is a smart company – smart enough for many people to be surprised after they witness this or that move or an acquisition, surprised enough to say “Why has not anyone thought of that move earlier?” And now it seems that Google has finally realized that it sends way too much traffic from its search results pages to websites that do not contribute to Google’s business. What would be the correct move for a business when faced by such a discovery? Find a way to make money by sending traffic to your own properties.

And this is exactly what Google needs Knol for: Google must be tired of being the major source of traffic for Wikipedia and many other independent publishers and now it looks for new ways to further monetize its own business. And for that it simply needed to have a platform of its own to be able to bring tons of content to internet users easily – and displace competitors from the search results. In this particular case Google serves as a full-cycle company: it provides the platform (Knol itself), the revenue (AdSense) and, finally, the distribution (search).

Sure, we hear lots of complaints about Knol already. It is quite obvious that from the day 1 of Knol launch we should have expected voices pointing at spam on Knol created in order to get revenue by building a page on a popular term. It was so obvious that it is almost ridiculous to complain about it now. The explanation here is that no matter what service people use they invariably are motivated by something. And often the motivation offered by the service determines exactly what type of users it will attract eventually… (full post here)

Knol – from Google blog
There is a debate about whether Knol is an attempt at competing with Wikipedia. In academic use, its unclear where exacly it fits – for example, much of what you would think of writing a “knol” about seems better placed in a standard journal article review or scholarly dictionary. Does this offer a replacement for those? Scholarpedia is another potential candidate for competing with standard academic review formats. At the moment, there is not much incentive for individual academics to produce these types of documents but is it, more generally, a more logical way of reviewing fields that are very fast-moving?… (full post here)

A Unit of What?
A knol, Knol says, is a “unit of knowledge”. I don’t think so. But I do think Knol is already becoming a den of spam.

My cursory research, at that link, suggests that the answer is yes. “Anemia“? No results. “Hair“? 12, including several (supposedly) by the top guy at the Beauty Network. “Cancer“? 38, so far, inncluding three in the first page of results for the biggest spam giveaway, Mesothelioma. Search for anything. Watch the results.

If this is about a fight with Wikipedia, I’d say it’s no contest. But it’s not. It’s about the corrupting influence of pure scammy ambition. Even if Google doesn’t have that, it plays host to plenty. And Knol (born on 23 July) was barely out of the womb before it got infected with it. (full post here)

The Invidious Knol
My third post on the subject and potentially the most worrying. This blog suggests that Google are tipping the search balance so that knols come above the Wikipedia on search. Its also got a good quote from Nick Carr I’m guessing that serving as the front door for a vast ad-less info-moshpit outfitted with open source search tools is not exactly the future that Google has in mind for itself. Enter Knol.

Now the evidence here is anecdotal, but it will be interesting to see if others carry out more scientific and controlled tests. If it is true then Google’s famous Do Good, already tarnished for its willing to compromise its principles in China would be finally shot. It would be an interesting new form of monopoly and a major issue of trust. Any other evidence out there? (full post here)

Twitter is also a neat place for Knol micro-stories. Here are some:

I would suggest Google Knol. It is a combination of Squidoo and Wikipedia. Plus, it is SEO-ready.

admiring my knol, and blogging about Intranet Week and my new gig at J&J

the geekosphere hating knol out of gate only makes me that much more bullish on it longer term…

I love that the wikipedia article for Knol ranks above Knol itself. I wonder how long that will last?

google knol has boobies. Goodbye wikipedia!

Ready to pronounce knol a failure already? I think we’ll see over time. Life is not *all* wisdom of crowds.

it’s pretty cool that Google can afford to have full on projects that are pointless – and it doesn’t really hurt – Knol, I’m looking at you

If I am Google, I am collecting every story I can find like this, and reading them all (including, and perhaps especially, the ones that are critical). There will be some randomness and noise, but with enough volume there will also be themes that emerge. Some that came out of my reading were:

- there’s a feeling that Google will favor Knols in its search rankings, and that’s a risk not only to the success of Knol, but also to AdSense, one of Google’s cash cows.

- the commercial model for Knol, and the perception of can encourage spammers and risk degrading the content available via Knols, tarnishing all of them.

- the perception that Google is taking on Wikipedia (or “commercializing” it) is clashing with Google’s “do no evil” mantra.

The Google team may find different patterns. Or they may not care to do anything about them. But they should at minimum understand them. Hopefully they’re doing so. The changes that come in Knol over the next few months should provide some insight.

(To see the links for thirty-five stories found on the web about Knol, both blogs and tweets, click here.)

Related post:
Review of “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth”
What in hell do stories have to do with innovation?

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