Google Knol: Implications for SEO

When Google announced its Knol project in December, many analysts said that the search engine giant went one step too far by effectively entering the turf of content producers. What kind of effect will this super-secret project have on search engine optimization practices if and when Google opens the service to the public?

Before I can cover the possible SEO implications, I’ll need to explain what Google Knol is and why it may matter to SEOs. On December 13, 2007, Udi Manber, a Google VP of Engineering posted to the Google blog about “inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling ‘knol,’ which stands for a unit of knowledge.” The idea behind Google Knol is to convince people who are authorities in their fields to write an article on the subject, thus increasing the actual knowledge available on the Internet.

The project is in private beta and invitation-only, so unfortunately I have no details as to the tools and interface that Google is providing to authors. In addition to offering free tools for writing and editing the knol, which is really nothing more than a web page, Google will host it for free. “Writers only need to write; we’ll do the rest,” Manber said.

Every author is responsible for editing and controlling his or her own page. They’ll own the copyright, so they can do with it pretty much whatever they please. Eventually, anyone will be able to write a knol. “For many topics, there will likely be competing knolls on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing,” Manber explained.

Every knol will highlight the actual author. Not only will their name(s) appear in the byline, but the knol itself will include a short bio. It won’t have to be static; Google plans to set things up so that those viewing knols will be able to submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so forth. Readers will also be able to rate knols and/or write reviews of them. Knols will include references and links to additional information. They may also include Google ads, at the option of the author. “If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads,” Manber noted.

It’s worth pointing out, before I go any further, that it is by no means certain that Google will go any further with this project. Google Labs always seems to be bubbling with something new, but the creative folks at the Googleplex come up with far more ideas that never see the light of the Internet. And even if it does open to the world, there’s no guarantee it will be successful. For every Google Earth, there are several projects like Google Base.

That said, why did Google announce that they were working on this project in private beta? TechCrunch notes that the timing of the announcement coincided with the launch of Wikia Search, the open source search engine being built by the for-profit arm of the same company that brought you Wikipedia. It’s an amusing irony – or perhaps TechCrunch has it right, that it’s “a reminder to Wikipedia that competition can flow both ways.”

Wikipedia’s results frequently appear near the top of Google for just about any search term you’d care to use. And Wikipedia absolutely refuses to put any ads on its pages. Google would love to have that kind of inventory on which to place ads. In the Google blog post, Manber pointed out that “A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic will want to read.” That’s the way Wikipedia tends to position its articles – and it’s also a prime venue for ads. Who wouldn’t want to get the first ads someone sees on a topic?

Of course, Google Knol faces direct competition from more than just Wikipedia. There’s Citizendium, with less than 50 approved articles at the time of writing. There’s Mahalo, whose dedicated human editors keep building interesting pages that look more and more “complete” every time I stop by the site. There’s Everything2, though their content typically isn’t anything to write home about. There’s Squidoo, which I’d say more about if they weren’t suffering from technical difficulties as I was writing this article.

And if you want to get really old school, there’s About.com. That site’s idea of guides that maintain an area for a particular topic isn’t all that far off from Google’s idea of a knol. Site guides even typically write at least one introductory article on the topic, to help explain it to new visitors. So what is special about a knol?

Udi Manber included an example of what a really good knol would look like. It covers the topic of insomnia. While the actual written content is real, a lot of the meta content (reviews, rankings, etc.) is not; after all, they’re still in private beta so they don’t have that data yet. I have screen shots below that I had to play with a little to fit, or you can look at the full-sized version.

 

I know, it’s hard to make out; sorry, I had to shrink it. This is just the top part. At the top right we can see a picture of the author, her name, a link in her name (which presumably leads to her bio or web site) with a sentence underneath that explains her qualifications. To the left at the top there is a place for the average article rating, and you can rate the article as well (or you would be able to if it were live). You can email or print the article, click to specific sections of the article, and look at “peer reviews” and “comments.” You can see when it was last edited, and you can click on a tab to offer edits and/or revisions. The article also lists search terms, but there is nothing to tell you who created that list, Google or the author.

Just below the author’s information is a rectangle with Google ads. Google shows three. What you can’t see from this image is that Google includes a statement in small grey text that “The author of this Knol does not endorse these ads.” Perhaps it is a salve to one’s conscience.

 

Further down the knol, on the right hand side, you can see a list of related knols, along with their ratings. There are also links to other knols written by the same author, with their ratings. Then there are peer reviews. In the interests of transparency, these all include images of the reviewers, link to their reviews, and also link to the reviewers’ profiles. Again, something you can’t see in this image, just below the links to the reviewers, is the statement that “This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.” It’s good of Google to allow this option.

The article itself has tons of links and images. At the end it also includes a good selection of links that readers can turn to for more information, and references (also with links). If you’re not already seeing some good possibilities to take advantage of a knol’s typical properties for the sake of SEO, you aren’t thinking clearly.

I want to reiterate that this project may never get out of private beta. But if it does, it strikes me as possibly the ultimate in linkbait. If you’re a good writer and an expert in your field, Google Knol gives you a chance to write the definitive introductory article about it. What’s more, unlike Wikipedia, there is nothing to say that the links you add to the knol must have the nofollow tag attached to them.

A number of professional SEOs are pretty excited about Google Knol and the possibilities it opens up. EGOL, a well-known and well-respected member of the SEO Chat forums, thinks Google Knol will be a great thing. “With Knol you will know who wrote the article and multiple authors in Knol can write on the same topic – so that will make competition. Lots of people like to compete…The real impact of Knol will be another site in the SERPs.” The consensus seems to be that Google Knol will beat Wikipedia in a couple of years or so, and that the ability to make money from your knol, combined with the fact that you have to reveal who you are, will lead to some very high-quality articles.

Google has said that it is not going to rank knols preferentially in its algorithm. That would be evil after all. But even if it doesn’t, if you’ve written the knol correctly it will contain many keywords. And make no mistake, if Google’s sample knol is any indication, a well-written knol is quite lengthy. Manber said that Google hopes to see knols “cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions.” Somewhere in that list, there must be a knol suited to your needs.

But there are a couple of issues I’d expect to see Google tackle before it goes live with Knol. One of them is authentication. How can Google confirm that you are who you say you are? When it’s a matter of receiving an invitation, that’s one thing, but when it’s open to everyone, what is to keep me from claiming that I’m Steve Ballmer?

The other issue is spammers. There doesn’t seem to be anything to keep a spammer from writing a knol, and/or getting some friends to write good reviews and strong rankings, which will presumably help it climb to a good position in the search engine results page. Sure, Manber said that “Our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google Search results,” and he seemed sure that his team would be up to the challenge, but will they really be able to keep up with the number of knols likely to be submitted? Danny Sullivan wondered something similar over at Search Engine Land: “But how will the project scale when it becomes available to the public?” Time will tell – but when it does, I hope you’re ready. Good luck!

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