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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Google Launches Wiki Site: A "Death Knol" for Wikipedia?

Breaking news: Google releases Wikipedia alternative. [I link to the slow-loading Salon article mainly because they win for best headline.]

Leaving aside for now various speculations about Google descending into "evil," the burning question in many people's minds is: will this diversification effort by Google succeed and become a standard, where similar efforts to branch out into spaces where users create content or community (orkut) have achieved only marginal success?

On this "will it float" question, the speculation depends on some sticky stuff. Can Google resist the temptation to load the dice?

Recall that main rival Wikipedia is highly visible largely because Google makes it so.

Further complicating matters is the recent memory of the Squidoo Slap, and the fact that Google's new service highlights authors, making it a little bit like Squidoo, whose rankings in Google Search Google ultimately controls.

Potentially driving the nail in the coffin on the evil meter, is the "search blending" thrust of all major search engines today. "Universal" or "Blended" search can all too easily become euphemisms for driving users to your own content. If that content happens to be excellent, then consumers know what they're in for and willingly accept the "blend." It's not as if other large media companies routinely point to rivals' programming, but of course there's a certain implied mandate we impute to search engines that they remain free of bias. When that line is crossed, credibility can begin to ebb.

In the Orion Panel on Universal and Blended Search at SES Chicago, various panelists were asked if these terms would catch on to describe the emerging face of search. Most said they were awkward terms, so recommended just the dignified-sounding term "search." But is it search, if it's really starting to be deeply, um, blended? Or is it a portal? That's the term I quipped on the panel, but maybe it wasn't entirely a quip. It's not polite to talk about search engines as portals and monopolists, ironically because search engines became as powerful as predicted. The powerful prefer to operate using descriptors that mask that very power. So presenting "blended" search as a kind of technological breakthrough, rather than a possible power play to encourage user adoption of other major properties owned by the search engines, is the politically correct way to spin it. So that's why we're not supposed to call them portals, I guess... because it's too true.

Evil or not, then? It's too gray an area to answer definitively. It's not evil in the sense that government regulators should step in, because big media companies always promote their own stuff. That's the whole purpose of becoming big. Network effects, literally. But as a search engine company, Google has some big non-evil principles to live up to. So many observers are already saying that knol is a step too far.

Leaving aside the ethical debates, it's a more straightforward game to speculate on whether knol will fly. Some say no. I say yes. Google has learned from past launches (like Google Answers) that flopped. But this product is being released as a follow-on second generation rival to a flawed first-generation pioneer. This puts Google in the enviable position of correcting certain pet peeves in the original model. The slightly-Squidoo-like practice of featuring individual authors (thus allowing multiple entries on a topic) provides new incentives for a new generation of contributors. If the platform is easy and fun to use, a lot of people will use it.

Purists may also find it interesting to note that the "fixed ontology problem" as described by Wherewithal founder Steve Thomas (in his critiques of directories like Yahoo and dmoz) is solved by allowing multiple lenses, er, I mean multiple authors for knols, allowing knowledge to split off into parallel streams, finding receptive audiences. This potentially puts an end to the deadlocks on some topics that lead to intractable process problems. It also gives voice to authors so there's more incentive for "real grownups" to contribute, as opposed to the army of anonymous diehards (often very young, with great skills at transposing public domain information) that built Wikipedia.

I had advocated a similar development for About.com when they were acquired by the NYT. They could create a great many more Guides (or whatever type of content) if they leveraged real, visible, celebrity reporters, authors, and experts, rather than the "whoever" process of choosing Guides they established in Gen 1. But of course, time waits for no one, and now, no one will be clamoring to be a Gen 2 About guide, because Squidoo and Knol and the like are getting all the attention.

Take one part quality product development, and one part great follow-on timing for a second-generation wiki user community that is itching for something better. Add to the mix Google's power (if it so chooses) to turn the screws on rivals Wikipedia, Squidoo, and Mahalo on the search engine visibility front, and you have a situation with enough power and flexibility that chances of success are high.

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