Sunday, March 8, 2009

Google Knol: It's way too early to be calling for its shuttering

Image representing Knol as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase

There has been a lot of discussion about the poor quality of Google Knol articles. Even though the service has only existed for a little over six months that hasn't stopped people from calling for Google to pull the plug:

Why Has Knol Survived Google's Orphan-Project Killing Spree?
We admire Google's willingness to experiment with new ways to build cool (and potentially profitable) features onto their existing service. And we admire Google's willingness to realize when their experiments have failed and shut them down. So why still back Knol?

I visited Google in Washington, D.C. last week and one of the topics was Knol. I signed an NDA so I can't discuss what I learned, but I can tell you that it was very interesting. When I got home I was motivated, so I spent a good deal of time kicking-the-tires on Knol once again.

I read a bunch of Knol articles, and I have to admit that I was taken back by all the crap. Where I didn't come across the tons of spam that people talk about, I did experience some very poorly written stuff. I couldn't miss the obvious bias (non-NPOV) in many of the articles, and the lack of consistency in the style of writing. As I moved from article to article it became very distracting.

I also came across a lot of high quality articles written by people with impeccable credentials who I would trust. The articles were well written, informative, and enjoyable to read. When I was reading I had to remind myself that was I was doing, browsing Knol, was an abboration. People don't browse Knol anymore than they browse Wikipedia. Not happening! They'll come to a Knol article the same way they come to all content today-- from search. Every article stands alone. (See: Searchable wads of content: Pulling the plug on the Web site)

That Knol articles don't rank high in search is more a reflection of the age of Knol than their quality. It will take time for the good Knol articles to start ranking higher. They won't be returned high in search results until people start linking to them. That's how it works. The crap articles will fall by the wayside and no one will ever see them. They'll be relegated to the Knol dead-pool, and the fact that they exist at all is irrelevant. If a tree falls in the forest.... The high quality articles, however, will eventually rise to the top.

Anyone who understands the most basic principles of Search Engine Optimization knows that it takes time for an article to rank high in search. To be calling for Knol's shuttering half a year into its existence is absurd. Knol solves some very significant issues for people who have expertise, and want to share it with others. Given more time (5 years?) I have no doubt that Knol is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

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Peg said...

Biased information? Dreadful writing?

I'm not convinced, and I don't think you mean to imply, Kevin, that merely rising in popularity (whether or not its author possesses "impeccable credentials") is enough to confirm a book's or a paper's intellectual rigor and the quality of its writing.

Knol could improve on all fronts by converting to a collaborative editing format.

Oh, but then experts would have to submit their words and the ideas behind them to collective review.

And Knol would become more like Wikipedia. Maybe they would merge. (Wikipedia Scholarly Edition?)

Of course, you'd have to sort out who owns what kinds of intellectual property rights to published works that other writers and editors have vastly improved and can keep on improving.

P.S. What passes for impeccable credentials these days, anyway?

Kevin Gamble said...

Good comments.

Knols can be collaboratively written. There's nothing in the Knol model to prevent that from happening. That could include review, copy editing, ect. Many aren't, but that's a different issue.

Where I trust Wikipedia there are many people who don't. For some, the idea that anyone could edit is a show-stopper. Is that their problem, or does Knol offer a viable alternative?

Knol also has a pretty decent system for managing copyright. Where I certainly favor CC Zero I'm open-minded enough to recognize that people want choices. Which is why I am such a huge fan of the Creative Commons.

When I mentioned the credentials I was specifically thinking about some medical knols I'd come across from physicians at a respected medical school. (If I was dying I'd want these people treating me.) I still think that people look at credentials and sources of information when deciding whether to trust or not. That's a legitimate part of information literacy. Wouldn't the trust be best determined by the reader? Does it hurt or help to know the experiences, education, etc. of the person behind the words?

Good stuff. Lots to think about for sure.

Kevin Gamble said...

Oops, one more point. I really like Medpedia ( This is a great model. Does that fact that they limit editing to medical professionals bother me? Nope. If I was seriously sick this wouldn't be the only source of information I would consult.

Peg said...

Whoops! I just now noticed Knol's collaboration settings and wiki formatting. Duh. double dose of egg on my face. I'll have to spend more time out there.

But now, it's time to get off my butt and out into the great wide open...

P.S. I still have questions about what constitutes impeccable credentials, though.

Kevin Gamble said...

Peg, bring em! :)

I'm going mountain biking...

Peg said...

Hmm. Regarding medical professionals and the peer-reviewed medical literature:

Many folks have examined the severe limitations of the Western bio-medical model for healing, the incredible and rising rates of iatrogensis from preventable medical error, the ongoing fraud in medical research and reporting (not to mention the unsavory ethics of outsourcing medical research to 3rd-world countries), etc., concluding that we need to honor and legitimate other voices and perspectives in our conversations about health and healing.

If you break your leg mountain biking, you'd definitely want a good ER doc. If you're having a baby, you might prefer a home birth with an experienced midwife over a tertiary-hospital OB center. (And statistics would support that choice for most women.)

I agree that professional credentials represent one means of assessing credibility.

But credentialing processes and credentialing bodies themselves suffer (often unexamined or implicit) scleroses and biases of many kinds, most of which I imagine you have more than a passing acquaintance with.

I might mention in passing the recent peer-reviewed works of academic economists and other vaunted experts in that field...

DairyScienceMark said...

I've been working on a Knol article and the key feature that I think is important is the reviewing capability/requirement. I think that the reviewed Knol articles are going to be the ones that people point to.

Luis Villa said...

Anyone who understands the most basic principles of Search Engine Optimization knows that it takes time for an article to rank high in search.

Welcome to the state of search engines, c. 2004.

Here in 2009, age of a page/domain is certainly still a factor, but all the major search engines are now more than happy to put very new relevant pages on the first page of search results if they are from relevant domains which are well-linked. Google frequently puts up blog posts that have existed for less than an hour on the front page of results if they are relevant.

Kevin Gamble said...


That was exactly my point, "well linked". That doesn't happen for content that isn't on anything but the most trafficked sites-- the average person can't write something and expect it to be well linked in a timely fashion.


Kevin Gamble said...


Excellent points.

I especially liked your mention concerng fraud. I've been thinking a lot of late about big science. I'm going to have some posts on that topic soon.


Peg said...

Bring 'em on!

Luis Villa said...

Things that are good do get well-linked very quickly on a regular basis. That Knols are not getting well-linked quickly (especially considering the visibility boost they get as a Google product) suggests that they aren't very good... which suggests that they are failing.

Now, I'd agree that it is a little too early to be calling for shuttering of a new project, but that's because I think one should be patient. The lack of linking is a sign of a bad product, though, not a sign that the site is too young.

rao said...

It is an interesting post and discussion. I think many web sites and blog sites do not want knol to succeed. That is why they are purposefully not giving links to knol articles. Also knol entered late into the wikiplatform field and it is facing a tough competition from existing platforms including wikipedia.

If it exists for five years, I am sure top quality content will be available on knol. I agree with some comments that nowadays even blog posts appear in search on the first day itself provided they are highly relevant.