Google as Publisher: The Grassy Knol

On December 13th Google took its first step from organizer and indexer of the world’s knowledge to supporting-creator of it with the announcement of a new free tool called “knol” (a cutesy-ism which stands for unit of knowledge).

The folks at publishing industry watcher Outsell were quick to use the announcement as validation of their predictions that Google would eventually enter the publishing market:

While it was debatable in the past whether or not Google’s actions constituted those of a publisher, there can be no doubt about it today.

Outsell takes a broader view of the announcement than most, who generally see it as a clear, direct shot at Wikipedia. (For an example of the consensus viewpoint, see this Newsfactor story entitled Death Knell Sounds for Wikipedia, About.com. I’d add that lesser known and poorly named Freebase seems squarely in the cross-hairs as well.)

Outsell points out that once a large knol-base (phrase coined by me, you heard it here first!) is created, then Google can tweak its search algorithms to favor its content over competing sites such as Wikipedia, which currently enjoys great organic search rankings; About.com, which doesn’t; and Answers.com which was a casualty of an algorithm change in August, resulting in a 28% traffic drop and a nearly 20% drop in their stock price.

There has been plenty written about knol so I won’t add a deep analysis here. For more, I’d go to the official Google blog post that launched knol and scroll down to see the list of blog postings that refer to it.

Techcrunch has a great write-up here:

Google is moving away from simply indexing the worlds content to being a content provider itself. Of course Google in response would argue that it is simply facilitating user generated content (like with Blogger), that ultimately they are the host as opposed to the creator, but it still competes with existing content providers, many of whom rely on Google search results for their living.

If you thought publishers were uncomfortable partners with Google before, things just got a lot frostier.

To me, despite billions of R&D investment and boatloads of hype, Google remains, as Kris Tuttle at Research 2.0 says, “a one-trick pony (but it’s one darn good trick.)” So no new initiative can be presumed successful simply because Google is behind it. Consider the defunct Google Answers, or the perennially weak comparison shopping service, Google Products, nee Froogle.

Is knol a gimme just because Google’s its dad? No way. The poor choice of name will hinder it as will Wikipedia’s entrenched position, positive karma, and what I sense is a growing Google fatigue in the market.

(Like a boyish 40-year-old suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome, I think Google is increasingly out of touch with its perception. They’re not cute and cuddly techies who everybody loves anymore, so they should stop trying to do cute and cuddly things.)

So, should this make publishers uncomfortable? Yes.

Is it (another) warning shot for the information industry? You betcha.

Do I have three words of advice for publishers regarding Google? Watch your back.

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