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Knol: Too soon for Google scrap heap

The Knol project for sharing and storing bits of information hasn't set the world afire. But it's cheap to run, has some potential, and shouldn't be written off yet.

Evidently trying to inject a little more life into its Knol project for sharing and storing bits of information, Google has begun a Knol for contest.

With a grand prize of $1,000, the contest isn't likely to stimulate the economy out of recession, but it was enough to spur Silicon Alley Insider's Eric Krangel to wonder why Knol is still alive. He's not the only one: my colleague Rafe Needleman suggested Knol is a good candidate for cancellation based on its buzz-free state.

Here's how I see it, though. Knol may not be the vaunted Wikipedia-slayer that some thought Google wanted to be, but it's probably not a huge drag on Google resources, so why not let it live? Knol is nascent today, but if Google can attract content and readers, Knol has the benefit of leverage: the labor of a few Google programmers can be amplified by the voluntary labor of outsiders to produce something useful without Google having to spend much.

Unlike some now-extinct Google services such as Dodgeball, Knol fits closely with Google's core mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." And it houses famously cheap user-generated content, of course--and users even are helping Google translate the Knol site itself into other languages besides the eight for which there currently are interfaces.

Judging by the Knol release notes, the project is gradually moving ahead, but it doesn't look like the kind of thing that requires an army of coders. Some of Knol's features are produced by Google programmers during their 20 percent time, according to technical lead Michael McNally.

Besides, unlike some of the services and projects Google canceled, Knol is relatively new. It hasn't generated much buzz in its half year of public existence, but it hasn't been around long enough to assess whether it's a dud. Knol hasn't baked long enough to see whether its potential advantages--ad-revenue sharing and individual-controlled editing--produces pages that Wikipedia or other sites don't have. And there's a silver lining to Knol's low prominence: it's silenced those who feared Google would use its search engine to artificially boost prominence of Knol content, in the view of Google Web spam fighter Matt Cutts.

Google said earlier this month that people have created more than 100,000 Knol entries. And the company has added a variety of improvements:

• A scorecard to review low-quality or plagiarized material.

• A custom search engine on Knol pages specifically for Knol content.

• Badges to show top-viewed and top-rated articles and authors.

• The ability to add Google spreadsheets, gadgets, Picasa pictures, and YouTube videos into Knol pages.

• A "most discussed" tab on the Knol home page (though so far the thin Knol discussions reflect how little social activity the site has generated).

• Knol templates such as city profiles or dog breeds.

There's plenty of dreck on Knol, to be sure--I found this tip on how to bunny-hop a bicycle less than helpful, for example, and it didn't take me long to find seemingly plagiarized Knol articles. But there also are pieces that are reasonable: bird-watching in Guatemala, bass fishing, and standard tips on photographic composition.

In short, while Knol hasn't let the Net on fire, we should give it another year before writing it off as a flop.