Knol and void: The day I became a published Google 'expert'

Writing a knol article on Google--something akin to a Wikipedia entry--can make you feel authoritative and empowered, until someone comes along and contradicts you.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read

I'm an expert on pit bulls! Really.

I just wrote a knol, a Web article akin to an encyclopedia entry, using Google's new Knol publishing platform launched publicly on Wednesday.

With Knol, Google is encouraging people to create more authoritative content that can be indexed by its search engine and monetized with ads. Unlike blogs, which tend to be casual and opinionated in tone, knols are supposed to be fact-based, informative, and well-sourced articles on a specific subject.

The author's knol on pit bulls.

Google is dismissing the notion that Knol is its Wikipedia killer, but both operate under the premise that Web users can collectively create a knowledge base that can be searchable and vast.

The difference is that while anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, which can lead to pages and pages of edits and contradictory revisions and accusations of bias, knols have an author's name attached. A knol author is responsible for the content and can choose to allow others to edit it, or filter suggested edits or even block public editing entirely.

I decided to try Knol out. First I had to figure out a subject I felt I knew enough about. I walk dogs as a volunteer at the local animal shelter where there happen to be a lot of pit bulls. I've learned a lot about the dogs and have become disturbed by the amount of misinformation that circulates about them. So I did some research and wrote a knol titled "The pitfalls of stereotyping pit bulls."

The hardest part was the research. But given that I do that every day for my job, it wasn't all that tough. I wrote the item in Microsoft Word and then cut and pasted it into the Knol page. It was easy to use the editing tools and add images. However, I think the page looks rather simple and dull. The system lacks the ability to add background colors and other stylistic flourishes that give blogs that individualistic panache.

Once I published the knol using the default "moderated collaboration mode," a colleague logged into his Google account and suggested an edit to my knol. I, in turn, rejected that edit (it's irrelevant that ex-Atlanta Falcons player Michael Vick, who I mention in the knol in reference to his dog fighting charges, wasn't that great of a quarterback). The system didn't notify my colleague that I snubbed his edit; he had to go to the page and keep checking the site for himself. It would be nice if the system were to notify people of the status of their suggested edits. Later, I found out that when an edit is accepted, the person who suggested it will be listed as a contributor in the contributor's list on the page.

My colleague, Tom Krazit, suggested an edit to my knol, which I subsequently rejected.

It also took a few hours for the system to index my knol so it could be searched via the main Knol page and even then, it only initially showed up when I searched by subject (pit bulls) but not by author name. By the next morning, I could search also by author name. The knol has yet to show up on the Google search page using both subject and author.

A Google spokeswoman said it takes time for the company to index new knols, but didn't say how long.

After some digging around I figured out how to add advertisements through Google's AdSense program, but I won't see any on the page for awhile (it can take up to two weeks, the system said).

Adding a New Yorker cartoon was simple. I was directed to the online New Yorker Store where I searched for cartoons dealing with pit bulls and found one. But when I added it into the blog it automatically inserted it at the top of the text and above the other image I had chosen. It didn't look right, so I removed it. If I had had the ability to determine where on the page the cartoon should go, I would have used it closer to the bottom of the page.

This New Yorker cartoon, while it was appropriate to the subject matter, was removed when I learned I couldn't control where it appeared on the page. The New Yorker

I felt an odd sense of power, and responsibility, creating my knol. It gives me the ability to publish anything I want, without having to run it past an editor like I do at CNET News. And once it is published, it is a permanent record and has an air of legitimacy that editorializing and gossipy blogs don't have. It's a Google knol--"a unit of knowledge" as the Web site describes it, lending it at least the illusion of propriety.

But what if I wanted to write something inaccurate or defamatory? Already that question has been put to the test with a knol written by Rachel Marsden, the ex-girlfriend of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales.

Her knol is titled "Jimmy Wales (Jimbo Wales)" and the summary describes Wikipedia as an "online libel board," that "any loser can use to smear people who are more successful than them."

I asked the Google spokeswoman about this situation and her response was: "Knol will be subject to our general content policies and terms of service, and knol content will be treated under those policies like any other user-generated content for which we provide a distribution platform. In particular, we will provide community flagging tools and the usual legal notification processes, so that we can comply with applicable laws and regulations. In addition, because knols are attached to verified author names, we think that the structure of Knol will actually provide something of a disincentive to defamatory or other harmful content."

It will be interesting to see how the Marsden-Wales fracas plays out on Knol. Google's response didn't give me any confidence that the system won't be widely abused. And it's likely that people who disagree with my knol will create one of their own with contradictory conclusions.

In an interview on Wednesday, Knol Product Manager Cedric Dupont said Google won't be determining the legitimacy of knols or verifying the authority of their creators. "We are not editors in any way," he said.

"We think we make it very easy for the user to determine the trustworthiness of the content."

I've deemed myself an expert on pit bulls by writing the knol. We'll see if the reader reviews and ratings suggest otherwise.