Google's Wicked 'Pedia

It's been seven months since Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) introduced Knol, a Wikipedia knockoff that raises the stakes by offering original authors opportunities for content control, acclaim, and cold, hard cash.

The site's holiday launch last year invited select contributors to flesh out Knol's knowledge base with original content. Now that Google has all of the kinks worked out, it's ready to take Knol Web-wide. Big G opened the floodgates yesterday, allowing anyone to sign up and begin contributing.

What a tangled wiki we weave
Google's chances look good. Wikipedia's anonymity and ad-free design are virtuous, but some writers need better incentives. Web 2.0 is about collaborative experiences, but nothing beats motivating an audience. Google knows this already; it's introduced ways for contributors to make some pocket change by blogging through its Blogger.com or joining the partner program on YouTube.

Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) offers points through its Askville Q&A site; they'll ultimately be redeemable for prizes through its oft-delayed Questville site. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) raised eyebrows when it offered online shoppers cash rebates through its comparison-shopping site, but if you offer someone the option of making money, or doing the same thing and not making money, more often than not they'll go for the money.

Knol is hoping to scratch that itch. Now that budding reference scribers can receive credit for their writings, and even profit from them if they opt in to the Google AdSense program, let's see whether Knol can straddle the thin line between commercialization and integrity.

Risks and rewards
Since Knol allows different authors the ability to create pages for the same topic, will it be flooded with inferior content, plagiarism, and gamers who vote down rival pages to boost their own exposure? This is either the most brilliant thing that Google has ever done, or the dumbest.

Either way, give Google points for being ambitious. Taking Knol public isn't the safest move. The site's not exactly original, even in its monetization spin. Rivals like Squidoo have been doing essentially the same thing for some time.

Other wiki sites like Answers.com's (Nasdaq: ANSW  ) WikiAnswers and Barnes & Noble's (NYSE: BKS  ) Quamut don't offer ad revenue-sharing options, but they do offer a little more flexibility in expressive freedom and crediting the original author.

Google's entry is notable because, well, it's from Google. With a little landing-page exposure for Knol, it should soon trail only Wikipedia in popularity. But does Google actually want that to happen?

If article quality goes unchecked, or the community goes click-crazy, a renegade Knol could hurt the Google brand. Many years ago, Yahoo!'s (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Overture and Miva's (Nasdaq: MIVA  ) FindWhat.com were two of the few profitable contextual marketing specialists. Yahoo! is holding its own, but Miva has eroded all the way down a dollar-menu stock price. FindWhat had to tackle fraudulent click allegations, and credibility is everything when it comes to wooing prospective sponsors.

Optimistic slant
The upside, on the other hand, is huge. If Knol's entries rival the artfully democratized balance of Wikipedia -- to the point that Google feels that the Knol pages are worth ranking above Wikipedia entries on its own site -- there's a lot of money to be made.

Google a term, any term, and Wikipedia is likely to have a high-ranking entry. Google doesn't make a cent if you check it out, since Wikipedia is an ad-free website. However, if a similar Knol page is visited instead, and the visitor is won over by a targeted ad on the page, Google -- and the Knol author -- make a little money.

Absent that, Knol will flop. If it becomes a closed community of fellow Knol contributors -- who know that clicking on your own Google ads is a quick way to get booted from the program -- Knol will do little more than serve a ton of pages without generating leads for sponsors. Google doesn't want that, either, so its best bet is to aim as high as it can.

Knol made it this far. It's too late to turn back now.    

Further Knol-edgable Foolishess:

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a huge fan of Google; it would be his homepage, if not for Fool.com. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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