In the two weeks since Google announced plans to unveil a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia called Knol, the blogosphere has been buzzing about its potential impact. Is this the Wikipedia-killer? A nefarious attempt to undermine media companies? A market-share play by a near-monopoly?
In my opinion, it’s none of those things. Knol is just a good idea that fills a gap in the market and that is likely to become a rich and useful alternative to Wikipedia. If Google and its contributors make money in the process, what’s wrong with that?
Knol will succeed because (for lack of a better term) it exploits the greed factor in community knowledge-sharing. Think of Wikipedia as public television or radio: it’s a public information source that is endearing, in part, because it’s so free of commercial interest. Sure, some people do use Wikipedia for business benefit, but most do so for the sake of sharing knowledge and contributing to the public good. Wikipedia’s anonymity is a virtue in that respect. There will always be value to that model and an audience for it.
Knol is a commercial play. According to sketchy details provided so far by Google, users will be able to attach bylines and profiles to their contributions and submit to community ratings. Articles will move up the popularity stack based upon a Digg-like process in which visitors identify the most useful content. Contributors could also see some financial reward if their work is heavily trafficked.
The fact that Knol promotes the identity of its contributors will give it significant commercial appeal, particularly for experts who don’t have the benefit of a big forum for their knowledge. I’ve written the past about an experiment called Wikibon that is a precursor to Knol. The creator of Wikibon, David Vellante, spent many years in market research and understands both the power and limitations of that model.
Market research firms charge high fees because they have a reputation for quality. The analysts who work there command big salaries and enjoy considerable influence in their markets. It’s the think-tank model and it’s tried and true.
The problem with think tanks is that they shut out the vast majority of potential experts. In most business-to-business markets, there is a huge body of knowledge locked up in the minds of practitioners, consultants and small businesspeople who don’t have the wherewithal to become part of the giant research firms. Their expertise is available only to the small number of people they can reach through whatever means they have available.
Wikibon is a long-tail experiment that tries to tap into that knowledge and create a quality information resource at a cost that’s potentially much lower than that of the think tanks. The idea is to remove all of the organizational overhead and just let people showcase their own expertise. If they do it right, they can grow their professional profile and improve their chance of landing good jobs or consulting assignments.
The same factors will apply to Knol, and that’s why it will be so successful. Few Web properties have Google’s capacity to showcase individual experts. There are many blogger networks out there, but Knol should quickly become the biggest blogger network of them all.
For individuals with the time, skill and savvy to promote themselves through a vehicle like this, the payoff could be significant. That’s why I say that Knol appeals to the greed factor. People will continue to contribute to Wikipedia because it reaches a vast audience. They will contribute to Knol because it promotes their personal interests. There will be a place for both models on the Web. There’s no reason that either has to be successful at the expense of the other.