Has Google killed Wikipedia with a shot from the grassy knol? Get real

I guess it’s inevitable: whenever Google announces anything — and I mean anything — the response from the blogosphere — and seeping out into the real-world coverage — is that it’s designed to “kill” something. And so it has been during the past 24 hours since Google announced it’s working on a service where people can share “units of knowledge” called “knols.” (I’m going to call the service “Knol” from here on out in this post, but I’m not sure if that’s like calling a blog-post a blog — and if you’re a blogger, you know how irksome that can be. So, the service may be called something and a post on it may be called “a knol” but for this post, at least, I’m calling the whole thing Knol.) Since Knol sorta sounds like what Wikipedia does — allow people to share knowledge — yesterday’s announcement has been greeted with a chorus of bloggers singing, “Ding-Dong, Wikipedia is Dead.” (Later: And now by the ‘msm’ – WSJ and NYT.) Even my friend Steve Rubel, who’s almost always right about things like this (translation: I almost always agree with him) has jumped on the “Wikipedia is dead” meme-wagon and gives several reasons why.

But let’s all get real: Wikipedia won’t be killed by Google. At least not by Knol. Here are several reasons why:

1. Google’s resources and dominance may be massive, but Google hasn’t reached death star status: Can someone remind me what, other than all the early search engines, Google has actually killed online that had anywhere near the brand and market position of something as dominant globally as Wikipedia. I mean, other than Altavista that had a fairly dominant online brand, what has Google head-to-head “killed” as in introduced a clone service that then killed dead — as in put out of business — the service that it was supposed to kill? Did Google kill YouTube with its video-hosting product (Google even had a headstart)? (Google did buy YouTube, but if that’s killing, then please, shoot me.) Has Picasa killed Flickr yet? Has Google Docs killed Microsoft yet? Did Google’s Blogger.com kill WordPress or MovableType? (Again, Blogger had a headstart on WordPress.) Did Google crush Yahoo! Answers with its competitive offering? And Dodgeball — they’re really kicking folks’ ass, aren’t they? I can go on, but you get the idea. Something growing as exponentially as the web does not always support the zero-sum games necessary to allow even those with massive resources to kill others who have big headstarts, marketshare dominance — and who have excessively loyal cult followings.

2. Google may have more resources than anyone else, but it doesn’t have enough resources to fight endless multi-front wars: Sorry to use a war metaphor, but there’s no power on earth that can fight with effectiveness if it spreads its front lines too thinly. It’s not only about resources, it’s about the required focus of a few folks who must actually steer the aircraft carrier (gee, I’m even mixing war metaphors). Sure, it may appear as if Google has endless resources, but in the past few months, they’ve launched products and initiatives that have been described by bloggers as killers of the iPhone, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., etc. So they’re not just out to kill Wikipedia, they’re also engaged in skirmishes with Apple (who has $15 billion in cash) and Microsoft (I’m just going to stop here, you get the picture.)

3. Google may have an army of PhDs, but Wikipedia has a militia of Ph.D candidates: I get to make this observation because I’ve actually attended the Wikipedia cult-fest event called Wikimania where all the magic elves who make Wikipedia work congregate each year. By and large, they are crazy-smart graduate students and they don’t need no stinking Google employee perks to get fired up about defending their turf. So sure, Google may have more money than Wikipedia, but Wikipedia’s global army do one thing and one thing well. And if Google invades their turf, they will fight on the beaches. They will fight on the landing grounds. They will fight in the fields, and in the streets and in the hills. And they will never surrender — oh, wait, I got carried away there. I’ll stop with the war metaphors.

4. Knol is not an encyclopedia — or a wiki — or even kinda like a wiki, so how’s it going to kill something it’s not like? Perhaps it’s because I spend a big chunk of time head-down in a project that runs on Mediawiki (the same platform as Wikipedia), I’ve come to realize an important ingredient in the secret sauce in Wikipedia is elaborate and ever-changing taxonomy of internal links and constantly (and creatively) categorization that connect information found everywhere on the site. From its description on the Google announcement, Knol’s concept seems more like Blogger.com than Wikipedia. I know that might sound shocking to some, but here’s what I mean: It’s a personal webpage creation/publishing platform (a content management system) for one individual to post their knowledge on a topic (something I think is wonderful, by the way). Some people do that all day on a blog, but instead of creating blog pages (posts), if I use Knol to share such knowledge, I can use a content management system that utilizes metaphors and page displays that present articles on different topics about which I’m an expert. Again, that’s not what Wikipedia — or any wiki modeled on it — does. On a wiki, collaboration is exhibited in group-editing and aggressive and collaborative linking and categorization. With Knol, “collaboration” comes from comments and links and reputation management tools. So, unless there is something I’m completely missing after reading the Google explanation of it, one day, when you look up “Insomnia,” you’ll find dozens of experts giving their own slant on the issue. The A-List Insomnia experts will get top ranked. Or, perhaps the people who write the most Knols will become like the Amazon.com reviewers who become “the top” reviewers because they write thousands of reviews.

5. Wikipedia’s business model crushes even Google’s: I’m talking on the operating side, not the revenue side. With spending zero (marketing*) dollars, Wikipedia has one of the most recognized and favored brands in the world. Sure, Google is #1, but how many T-Shirts have they blown through in getting there? (In reality, while Wikipedia’s branding ROI is probably the most staggering in history, Google’s is in the same league — unlike Apple and Coke and others who spend hundreds of millions each year to gain the same level of global awareness.)

6. Knol may finally wake up the hippie fretards who keep Wikipedia from rolling in cash like the Mozilla Foundation: Oops, sorry. I was channeling Fake Steve. I have a hunch that if the true-believes who are the behind-the-scene magic elves who power Wikipedia become convinced that Google is out to crush them, they will suddenly find revenue religion and allow an alliance with Google, Microsoft or Yahoo! that will (think Mozilla’s Firefox and Google) make it rain millions into the Wikipedia Foundation’s coffers.


Let’s face it: Google is always going to be labeled -killer no matter what they do. And despite what I’ve observed in this post, I’m not here to bury Google, but to praise it: I hope Knol is a huge success and millions of people share their knowledge using it. I’m all for spreading knowledge anyway we can. My only point here is to argue that Wikipedia is not going to be killed — by Knol, at least.

Hey, but if it does, please feel free to drop by my Orkut page and tell me about it.

Sidenote: How long will it take Knoll’s lawyers to jump onto this?

*I added this clarification word after the original post. See comments below.

  • Rex, most of your posts are well worth reading, but you were blew it on this one. It’s not that I think Knol will blow Wikipedia out of the water, but your arguments are pretty specious.

    For instance, you claim that Wikipedia is spending zero dollars in operating revenue. According to http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Planned_Spending_Distribution_2007-2008, you’re off by about 5 million. What do they get for their $4.611 million? Servers that are incredibly slow, and wikiality.

    It’s not a militia of graduate students who edit Wikipedia, it’s the tinfoil hat brigade, with lots of time on their hands, living on SSI since they got out of the loonie bin. They fight hard to sustain their tinfoil-lined perceptions of reality.

    Wikis work fine for departmental group authoring. They don’t work well for public sites. You demand my name, email, and website to post here – making me responsible for my contribution. Wikipedia doesn’t – and as a consequence, their credibility lags GeoCities.

    Wikipedia fights endless multi-front wars, but GeoCities doesn’t. Knol is an easier-to-edit GeoCities organized by content instead of meaningless street names and numbers. Users end up going to the pages that other users like – the same algorithm that has us going to google.com instead of altavista.digital.com

    It was Larry Ellison, not Larry Page, that said, “It’s not enough that we win; all others must lose”. Or did he? Wikipedia won’t give you that answer (at least *now*; you might check again in 10 minutes, and find that it was Larry, the Cable Guy). Google’s business strategy has always been about doing something better, not doing something exclusively.

    Web Rings aren’t dead, either. Wikipedia is going to survive as long as Jimmy Wales can get enough contributions.

  • Rex Hammock


    Thanks for implying my arguments aren’t ALWAYs specious.

    A couple of clarifications:

    First, I was referring to maketing dollars spent on brand-building when I said Wikipedia spent zero. I know that Wikipedia raises and spends money. My (specious) argument is that the return on investment is higher than even Google. However, I agree, my argument there is specious as well, as Google actually converts it’s traffic and brand-power into cash while Wikipedia’s traffic is not un-locked.

    Also, on the “tinfoil hat brigade” — While I love your imagry, I’m referring here to what I know to be and not what I imagine to be. I spent about three days at Wikimania with Wikipedians so into the cult they were willing to pay their way from around the world to go hang out a few days with others like themselves. I saw no tin foil, but lots of college grad students among the self-selected hundreds.

    These are not the folks who write the entries, rather, these are the people who devote time to taxonomy and categorization. They are the folks who fight the internal squabbles and tick each other off. But they do so, because they are passionate (if only for a fleeting time) about the ’cause.’

    My bottomline point (which is also, perhaps, specious) is this: Google’s Knol won’t kill Wikipedia.

  • Paul attacks the credibility of Wikipedia content based on the nature of the people who create it, but Wikipedia staff flags content that is questionable for one reason or another. Will Google do the same with Knol? Somehow I doubt it.

    But even with that questionable content, the journal Nature did a side-by-side comparison of several thousand science-themed articles and found Wikipedia was no less reliable and accurate than Britannica. I have encountered college professors who know REQUIRE their students to use Wikipedia rather than ban them from it.

    There are still things about Wikipedia I don’t like (I can’t correct a factual error on behalf of a client because I have a “biased” point of view, while an unafilliated raging activist is under no such restriction). But overall, it’s been a huge success, and I’m with you, Rex. I don’t see Knol diminishing its popularity at all. If anything, it will complement the service.

  • I’m with you Rex. I think this will have a negligible impact on Wikipedia.

    i thought you were mostly right on the money when you said, “It’s a personal webpage creation/publishing platform (a content management system) for one individual to post their knowledge on a topic.” Where Google’s own press release gave credence to the “one individual” argument, I don’t see how Knol specifies how the content is created. It certainly would be easy enough to collaborate on Knol content using Google Docs, and I’m guessing that it will be possible to publish to Knol through Jotspot when Google finally brings it back. This is not exclusively for sole authorship. I can see all sorts of collaboration happening. Want to collaborate with me in writing a blogger posting right now? I can send you a Google Docs invite and we can publish directly from there. I can’t see why the same model wouldn’t play out here.

    To me, what is significant here is that it disintermediates all of the technologies to creating a Web site. We’ve been slowly marching toward each piece of content being a standalone product anyway. This accelerates that trend, and plays right into Google’s search strength.

    This is the longtail for Web content. Where Wikipedia is in this space they are in a particular nitch. This opens up simple Web publishing to the masses.

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  • You spent three days with WikiPedia? I spent a little over a year, making thousands of contributions, including some GA pages. I finally gave up, because it became clear to me that it’s never going to work. A regular encyclopedia doesn’t insist that their writers footnote every sentence, but they have paid staff, with valuable reputations. WikiPedia has anonymous editors, so instead of backing up assertions with the editors’ reputations, they require verifiability by reliable sources. Any editor, according to official policy, can remove any statement which isn’t verifiable.

    Except that they don’t. Take a look at the Physical Cosmology article. “The relationship between distance and speed, however, was accurately ascertained only relatively recently: Hubble was off by a factor of ten.”

    These days, every third-grader knows that if you hop a train going to Chicago, a distance of 500 miles, and the train averages 50 miles an hour, it’ll take you 10 hours to get there. Did Hubble imagine that it would only take *one* hour to arrive – or that it would take 100 hours? Obviously not – but the tinfoil hat brigade defends this absurd assertion to the death. They argue that adding footnotes puts an unreasonable burden on the writer – and makes the article unreadable as well.

    I contribute cash to the Salvation Army, and food to the homeless shelter, but I no longer contribute blood nor money to the American Red Cross; I’ve seen how they operate. Similarly, I no longer contribute to WikiPedia; GeoCities is far more trustworthy.

    Anonymous editing, and management by mob rule don’t jibe well with reliable references. The truth is not determined by a show of hands.

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