July 24, 2008 -- In a move widely seen as the Silicon Valley behemoth's answer to Wikipedia, this week Google opened Knol, its own user-generated encyclopedia, to the public.
Unlike Wikipedia, people who write entries on Google's encyclopedia are identified and could even earn a profit from their articles with ads. The more times the article is viewed, the more an author can get paid. Google, of course, gets a cut of the profits.
"The key principle behind Knol is authorship. Every knol will have an author (or group of authors) who put their name behind their content," the company wrote on its blog Wednesday. "It's their knol, their voice, their opinion. We expect that there will be multiple knols on the same subject, and we think that is good."
Knol has been operating on a trial basis with a company-selected, invite-only group of authors since December 2007.
"Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it," the company wrote on its blog in December. "We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of Web content."
Google Knol readers rank the usefulness of entries, adding comments and asking questions. Google will not edit the pieces.
But can Knol unseat current online leader Wikipedia?
Wikipedia was founded in January 2001. It has more than 8.2 million articles in more than 200 languages, including more than 2 million in English.
Unlike Google Knol, Wikipedia is not ad-supported, but instead supported by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. With a stated mission of supporting the free dissemination of information, the foundation is funded mostly by private donations and some grants.
Even without added competition from Knol and similar sites like Squidoo, Wikipedia has faced credibility challenges that can be primarily attributed to the collaborative nature of its entries. In the Wikipedia model, users write articles and other users can edit the entries by adding or deleting information.
In theory, the entries get more thorough and accurate as they live on the site. The reality, however, is not so simple.
In August 2007, a British graduate student developed WikiScanner, a program that identified the authors behind Wikipedia edits. The program revealed that people at the IP addresses of several major companies made changes to their own or competitors' entries.
"That's been a fairly serious problem with Wikipedia," said Rob Enderle, a Silicon Valley technology analyst. "Way too many personal attacks."
Enderle says that identifying the author gives Knol an extra layer of credibility.
Google's main challenge in competing with Wikipedia will be people's current Web habits, Enderle said.
"People are creatures of habit," he said. "If Wikipedia can deal with a trust problem, they can stand up against this."
However Wikipedia fares, there is room for more than one user-generated encyclopedia, said Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo.
"On my desk next to my computer I have a reference shelf -- dictionaries, thesauruses," Saffo said. "This same thing will be true on the Web. There's plenty of space. I think the two will reinforce each other."
Knol's respect for authorship will be a huge boon for Google to differentiate it from competitors such as Wikipedia and Squidoo, Saffo said.
"How many people are going to labor hours and hours for Wikipedia [when it's anonymous]? In this case you're the author and it's your reputation," Saffo said. "I can see this being used for graduate students out of school trying to build a reputation, professors thinking about getting tenure. It's a star-making machine for the right kind of intellectuals."
Knol will even work for people who aren't experts, Saffo said.
"Reputation is a really powerful incentive for people to contribute," he said. "This plays perfectly to the whole notion to the rise of amateurs."
In addition to its "star-making" potential, Knol has an added incentive -- it allows its authors to make money from their writing, Saffo said.
"At the discretion of the author, a knol may include ads," Google posted on its blog. "If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads."
It's way too soon to tell what effect Knol will have on Wikipedia and other sites like it, but when the world's largest search engine and its scoring ability gets behind something, people take notice.
"Wikipedia allows group contribution, but it doesn't allow ranking. ... Google is applying ranking to that. Which method is a better way to show reliability?" Saffo said. "[They're] two very different approaches and each has its advantage."