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.
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