It's hard to understate the importance of Wikipedia in today's web. Entries for the community-based encyclopedia often appear atop the heap in Google's search results on a myriad of topics, and pop culture references to Wikipedia have become ubiquitous.
But despite its massive reach, Wikipedia offers scant room for brands to play, beyond monitoring a selection of entries -- a reality that gives more than a few brand managers sleepless nights.
But Knol, a new product from Google, could offer brands more than a reference headache.
Writing on the project's blog, Udi Manber, VP engineering, didn't call out Wikipedia by name, but his goal for the project clearly takes aim at the encyclopedia's strength.
"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," Manber wrote. "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."
According to Hitwise, more than half of Wikipedia's traffic comes from Google. While Knol and Wikipedia may not be direct competitors in terms of style, the two do appear to be on a collision course for top billing when it comes to web queries.
Or, as John Barrett, director of research at Park Associates, wrote in his blog, "What Google is essentially trying to do is 'privatize' the Wikipedia idea and make it into a business."
What is Knol?
While many have called Knol a competitor to Wikipedia, it's certainly not the same thing. Unlike Wikipedia, Knol won't be anonymous. Instead, authors will be linked to their articles, something Google hopes will help promote better accuracy and in turn help attract wary advertisers into a space dominated by questionable content.
The site, which is still in beta, also will eventually allow authors to enable ads and share in the revenue, making it a serious departure from the community-driven experience at Wikipedia. Users will be able to submit, comment on and -- to some extent -- edit Knol articles.
(In a Wired blog post, Scott Gilbertson pointed out the inherent contradiction of putting the author front and center while simultaneously allowing for community editing. So far, Google hasn't elaborated on that contradiction, and there's no way of knowing how the search giant will settle debates between authors and the community while adhering to its promise not to edit content.)
Knol's beta status, Google's relatively tight lips on the matter, and the limited number of screenshots means most of the project's details will remain in the dark for now. But for many observers of the reference space, Knol needs to be viewed through a wider lens, drawing on aspects of Yahoo's Answers, search engine upstart Mahalo and Squidoo.
Is it an ad platform worth watching?
For marketers who have hungrily eyed Wikipedia's gaudy traffic, fantasizing about using the reference site as a weapon in the war for reach, Knol could be a step in the right direction. But Knol won't be a cure for what ails marketers in the reference space, according to SEO consultant and author Aaron Wall, who says the space will be like a lot of other platforms that support contextual advertising.
For Wall, that means relatively subdued ads on the right side of the page.
"This doesn't seem like the kind of space that will get great clickthrough rates," Wall predicts. "But if Google wants to push it, the scale alone could be something to watch."
According to Barrett of Park Associates, Google may not be able to push Knol to the heights Wikipedia has seen. While the search giant's ever-changing algorithm could begin to favor Knol articles over Wikipedia entries, the real question will come down to community response.
"Nine out of 10 people will probably just see ads on something like Knol and ignore them," Barrett says. "The problem is that you rely on people to volunteer their time, energy and expertise to create the pages, and if you alienate them, then all of a sudden your platform stops growing. If that happens, it really doesn't matter how good a job you do at monetizing the space."
For Barrett, that means Knol won't tempt Wikipedia to try its hand at selling ads because Wikipedia would have to know that its brand relies on volunteers. In other words, the reference space may become a viable -- and effective -- tool for advertisers, but the likelihood of the space leader switching to a for-profit, ad-supported model probably won't become a reality anytime soon.
According to Barrett, the reference space demands singular answers, not diverging opinions. And that means Wikipedia's head start and devoted community of volunteer editors should be enough to keep Knol at bay.
That sentiment was seconded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who chided the idea of Knol as a blog aggregator.
But that's not to say that Knol -- if it succeeds -- won't offer something beneficial to marketers looking to cut off a slice of the reference space that has thus far remained largely out of their reach.
"If there's a critical mass, it's hard to ignore the audience," explains Benjamin Reid, VP of sales engineering at Operative. "The challenge for Google is that display has a higher bar, and the credibility of the content is going to matter. Advertisers are going to take a more narrow view of unedited content. While that space is far from valueless, it is a lot more risky and advertisers will have to weigh that."
Why is Google doing this?
For Barrett, Google's foray into the reference space makes perfect sense when you consider the search giant's business model of experimentation.
"They have a long history of launching products that tend to dabble in different areas," Barrett says. "Sometimes they take off, and sometimes they don't, that's just part of the company culture there."
But according to Barrett, profit may not be the sole motivator for Google when it comes to Knol.
"On some levels this is a battle with Wikipedia for users, but on other levels it's not," Barrett explains. "I think that Google understands that if this is simply about monetizing reference, it will backfire. Knol may just be about contributing to the spirit of experimentation that has been a part of the web since the beginning."
What about search?
Shortly after Google announced Knol, a Wall Street Journal article highlighted one possible byproduct of Google's quest to enter the reference space: namely that the search leader could be tempted to tinker with search results to help give Knol a leg up on Wikipedia. While the WSJ dismissed that possibility, and Barrett likewise sees little reason for Google to stake its search reputation on a product that may or may not succeed, Google's engineer in charge of the project, Udi Manber, has hinted that search is an element in the Knol equation.
"The web contains an enormous amount of information, and Google has helped to make that information more easily accessible by providing pretty good search facilities," Manber wrote. "But not everything is written nor is everything well organized to make it easily discoverable."
That opaque reference to improving the overall quality of search on the web makes an SEO consultant like Aaron Wall skeptical. According to Wall, one need only look as far as YouTube to see that Google's search is capable of favoring house content.
While that's a possibility, it's hard to imagine reference rivaling video for ad dollars.
The rest of the pack
One underestimated aspect in Google's Knol project may be the search giant's need to keep up with its rivals. While Wikipedia has garnered much of the press in terms of being a target for Knol, Yahoo's Answers, search engine upstart Mahalo and Squidoo could be the real story.
All three rely on ads, and all three could ultimately vie with Knol for ad dollars in the reference space. If that's the case, Knol might say more about what Google thinks of those already operating in ad-supported reference space than its desire to capture some of Wikipedia's traffic. That means Knol may not have to be a top-notch ad platform to be a success. Rather, the goal may be as simple as protecting Google's flanks in its battles with Yahoo and numerous other startups.
Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.