San francisco: Type “buttermilk pancakes” into Google, and among the top three or four search results you will find a link to a detailed recipe complete with a photo of a scrumptious stack from a site called Knol, which is owned by Google Inc.
Google envisions Knol as a place where experts can share their knowledge on a variety of topics. It hopes to create a sort of online encyclopaedia built from the contributions of scores of individuals. But while Wikipedia is collectively edited and ad-free, Knol contributors sign their articles and retain editing control over the content. They can choose to place ads, sold by Google, on their pages.
Dizzying array: Critics say each new Google initiative in content hosting casts a doubt on the company’s claims that it is not a media company. (NYT)
While Knol is only three weeks old and still relatively obscure, it has already rekindled fears among some media companies that Google is increasingly becoming a competitor. They foresee Google becoming a powerful rival that not only owns a growing number of content properties—including YouTube, the top online video site, and Blogger, a leading blogging service—but also holds the keys to directing users around the Web.
“If in fact a Google property is taking money away from Google’s partners, that is a real problem,” said Wenda Harris Millard, the co-chief executive of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.
Money, of course, is very much at issue. The lower a site ranks in search results, the less traffic it receives from search engines. With a smaller audience, the site earns less money from advertising.
Although Martha Stewart’s buttermilk pancake recipe appears lower than the Knol recipe in Google’s rankings, Millard does not believe that Google unfairly favours pages from Knol. But she said that Google’s dual role as search engine and content site raises an issue of perception. “The question in people’s minds is how unbiased can Google be as it grows and grows and grows,” Millard said.
Google has always said it will never compromise the objectivity of its search results. And it says it treats Knol pages like any other pages on the Web.
“When you see Knol pages rank high, they are there because they have earned their position,” said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google.
There is little evidence that Knol has received favourable treatment. Many of the Knol pages that rank high on Google rank similarly high on Yahoo. (The Knol buttermilk pancakes? No. 4 with Yahoo search.)
Google has long insisted that it has no plans to own or create content, and that it is a friend, not a foe, of media companies. The Google search engine sends huge numbers of users to the digital doorsteps of thousands of media companies, many of which also rely on Google to place ads on their sites. “Our vision still remains to be the best conduit that we can be, connecting people between whatever their search is and the answer they are looking for,” Stricker said. “For that reason, we are not interested in owning or creating content.”
Knol is merely a tool for others to create and publish information, and once they do, Stricker said, “our job, which is to organize that information, kicks in.” Google does not own copyrights to the Knol content, and the site will not carry the Google logo, he added.
Knol is not Google’s first foray into content hosting. The company has long owned Blogger, one of the most popular blogging services. It is digitizing millions of books, which it makes available through its search service. It owns the archives of Usenet, a popular collection of online discussion forums that predates the Web. Google also carries some news stories from The Associated Press in Google News, and it publishes stock market information through Google Finance. And of course, Google owns YouTube, one of the largest media sites on the Web.
Critics say each new Google initiative in this area casts more doubt on the company’s claims that it is not a media company.
“Google can say they are not in the content business, but if they are paying people and distributing and archiving their work, it is getting harder to make that case,” said Jason Calacanis, the chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine that relies on editors to create pages on a variety of subjects. “They are competing for talent, for advertisers and for users” with content sites, he said.
Knol has been called a potential rival to Wikipedia and other sites whose content spans a broad range of topics, including Mahalo and About.com, a property of The New York Times Co. that uses experts it calls “guides” to write articles on a variety of topics.
Asked whether Knol posed a threat to About.com, Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at The New York Times Co., said, “About.com is very well positioned in the marketplace.”
Knol could also compete with many websites that specialize in single topics, such as WebMD in medical information or the smattering of how-to, do-it-yourself or cooking information sites and other instructional sites that are proliferating online.
Some online media companies say they are unconcerned about the prospect of competing with Knol.
“Assuming that Google treats Knol just like it treats other websites, it is just another company out there producing content,” said Richard Rosenblatt, the chief executive of Demand Media, a fast growing online company that owns how-to content sites such as eHow and ExpertVillage.
©2008/The New York Times