Monday, December 17, 2007

Make way for Googlepedia

The best job in the world must be acting as chief strategy officer for Google. Every month you get to come out with a new initiative for Total World Domination, while at the same time positioning as an improvement for Google customers and the Internet economy as a whole. Being chief economist of Google would also be fun, but there you have to crunch the numbers, and I’d rather paint in broad strokes and leave the implementation to others.

Over the weekend, the dead tree news delivery vehicle was talking about “Googlepedia,” Google’s answer to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia was arguably the first breakaway hit of user-generated content on the web. By Tim O’Reilly’s definition, that would make it a Web 2.0 success before “Web 2.0” had been coined. It has achieved its goal of unprecedented scope for any reference source, but its inclusiveness has brought inherent (perhaps irreparable) quality problems, particularly in the less-trafficked entries (which of course provide that broad scope). My own experience with contributions — with some people making my work better and some making it worse — mirror the problems of Wikipedia as a whole.

Google is planning a different model. In the official Google blog, its VP of engineering Udi Manber wrote

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. ...

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content. ...

A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors.
So this is a completely different approach to producing content — initially commissioned (solicited) articles and later (presumably) expert-written by a broader audience. This would certainly address the problem that current Wikipedia articles tend not to have a coherent tone or perspective.

However, Manber admits Google may not completely solve the (inherent) quality problem of user-generated contented:
The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. ... Once testing is completed, participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality. Our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google search results.
So picture Slate (Slashdot?) type magazine articles with Amazon-type user feedback. (The domain name “knol” isn’t available, apparently because it means “turnip” in Dutch).

I’m would expect that Googlepedia would be a great source of anxiety for founder Jimmy Wales and his Wikimaniac volunteers — a head-on threat, unlike Conservapedia, which serves a tiny niche market of American home school parents upset at the leftist bias of the mainstream media and some parts of Wikipedia. Googlepedia has more resources than another project attempting to fix Wikipedia’s inherent flaws — Citizendium, by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger. (Sanger himself is skeptical of Knol).

But in the AP story (carried by my paper), Wales gave a flip answer:
In a Friday interview, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales downplayed Google's latest move. "Google does a lot of cool stuff, but a lot of that cool stuff doesn't work out so great," he said.
Organizations that underestimate Google tend to go out of business or at least fade into oblivion. Wikipedia is better established than that, but I still think they should worry.

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