Google announced last week that it had recently reached the milestone of 100,000 articles published on Knol, the company's answer to Wikipedia.

Knol was launched in July last year, and attracting so many contributors in such a short space of time is no mean feat, but it is flawed so far, and there are plenty of issues to be resolved on the site before it can begin to worry Jimmy Wales.

The growth is impressive: as this chart in Mashable shows, while Wikipedia took nearly two years to reach 100,000 articles, Knol has managed this in just six months. However, I doubt that every one of these Knols is as authoritative as they are meant to be, while the site is nowhere near as useful as its competitor.

Knols are meant to be 'authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects' but it doesn't take long to find knols which don't fit this description at all. Here are a few problems areas that need to be improved:

Spammy articles / advertorials

On Knol, authors of articles can put advertising on their pages. While there is no reason why people who have spent time and effort in creating quality content shouldn't be able to make some money from it, this has naturally led some to write articles just to make some income from AdSense or to plug their own products.

All links on Knol articles are nofollow, so this at least prevents some of the worst kinds of spam seen on splogs, but there is still plenty of dubious promotional content on the site, such as this article plugging insurance policies, or this which just promotes someone's SEO services. If I had taken the time to write an authoritative article on SEO, as Aaaron Wall has done, I wouldn't want it to be associated with some of the rubbish on the site.

Dodgy formatting

Most Wikipedia articles are well formatted, with line breaks, bullet points, section headings etc, which make articles easily readable and digestible for users. This is because it has laid down a style guide which sets out the basic format of articles, and makes it consistent across the site. This is something Knol could use, as some articles lack formatting, making them incredibly difficult to read.

Duplicate content

Some people haven't even bothered to write their own knols, and have just copied and pasted content from other sites, most commonly Wikipedia. This sort of thing needs to be dealt with more quickly, as such knols just dilute the quality of the whole site.

Questionable content

This article on restoring your antique French revolver is very informative, despite looking like an eBay listing, but should web users in Europe have access to such content, alongside other articles by the same author, which basically tell people how to turn antique firearms into deadly weapons?

Browsability

The site is terrible to browse through, and not much better to search. Apart from the few featured knols on the homepage, it is not a site you can just browse through looking for articles of interest. Nothing has been sorted into categories and sub-categories so browsing through a particular subject area and narrowing down the search is impossible to do.

If you want to browse, the only way to do it is to scroll through a massive alphabetical list containing the 100,000+ knols with no means of sorting or filtering:

Even if you have a particular search term in mind, if it is relatively popular the site search feature will still leave far too many results to trawl through, with no means of narrowing down the selection.

By contrast, Wikipedia provides featured articles and plenty of links to content within the site from its homepage. It also provides a full index of categories and sub categories for browsing, and sorts search results by relevance, or else leads you directly to the most useful page for your search term.

Collaboration on editing

The increased authority on Google Knol is meant to come from both the fact that the authors are verified by phone or credit card, and the fact that only they can edit their articles, though other users can suggest edits. When you have a genuinely knowledgeable Knol author like this Professor of English, it can produce some excellent and informative content.

However, the flipside is that if a knol contains factual errors or is poorly written, unless the author is willing to accept criticism from others and approve edits, it will remain a poor article with little use to web users.

Wikipedia's model is not perfect by any means, but at least the colllective editing process has led to most articles being reasonably accurate, well written, and though you shouldn't just believe anything you read on the site, it is a useful resource. Google Knol has done away with the benefits of this collaborative process, without taking steps to ensure the quality of all content on its site.

It is a difficult thing to achieve, but when the knols of genuine quality are buried under the sheer quantity of spammy, inaccurate, or just plain poor content, it's hard to see why anyone would use this site over Wikipedia, or why users would take the time to produce excellent and informative knols. 

Graham Charlton

Published 20 January, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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