Google unveils online reference tool

For better or worse, Wikipedia–the online reference site that lets anyone add to its ever-growing body of knowledge–has changed the nature of internet research. Now Google is taking the wraps off a free internet encyclopedia of its own, designed to give people a chance to show off–and profit from–their expertise on any topic.

The service, dubbed "knol" in reference to a unit of knowledge, had been limited to an invitation-only audience of contributors and readers for the past seven months.

Now anyone with a Google login will be able to submit an article and, if they choose, have ads displayed through the internet search leader’s marketing system. The contributing author and Google will share any revenue generated from the ads, which are supposed to be related to the topic covered in the knol.

The advertising option could encourage people to write more entries about commercial subjects than the more academic topics covered in traditional encyclopedias.

Since Google disclosed its intention to build knol (see "Google working on internet encyclopedia"), it has been widely viewed as the company’s answer to Wikipedia, which has emerged as one of the web’s leading reference tools by drawing upon the collective wisdom of unpaid, anonymous contributors.

But Google views knol more as a supplement to Wikipedia than a competitor, said Cedric Dupont, a Google product manager. Google reasons that Wikipedia’s contributors will be able to use some of the expertise shared on knol to improve Wikipedia’s existing entries.

With a seven-year head start on knol, Wikipedia already has nearly 2.5 million English-language articles and millions more in dozens of other languages.

Knol is starting out with several hundred entries. A quick perusal of the site on July 23 revealed the vast majority related to health issues, such as seasonal allergies or cataracts. Only a handful of entries–such as "Feminist Analytic Philosophy" and "The Decline of Women in Computer Science from 1940 to 1982"–covered what might be considered academic subjects as of press time.

Unlike Wikipedia, knol requires the authors to identify themselves to help the audience assess the source’s credibility.

Google doesn’t intend to screen the submissions for accuracy, Dupont said, and instead will rely on its search formulas to highlight the articles that readers believe are credible. (Readers can rate each article on a scale of one to five stars, just as they rate videos on Google’s YouTube.)

Google has had mixed success so far in its attempts to expand beyond its ubiquitous search engine, which generates most of its profits. While products such as its eMail service and web-based productivity software have been hits, other forays–like a listing system called "Base" and a social network called Orkut–haven’t fared as well.




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