Udi Manber loves cartoons. Not animations, but the single-panel graphics that appear in magazines like The New Yorker. He studies the history of the field, has covered the walls of his house with framed originals, and has edited a book of cartoons about Google, where he works as the head of search engineering.
"Udi's not just a fan, he's a connoisseur," says Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
When not thinking about cartoons, Manber spends endless time thinking about how search can be improved. One big reason many searches don't succeed, he believes, is that despite the 20 billion or so Web pages in Google's indexes -- including the 2 million items in Wikipedia -- the information simply isn't there.
For instance, what if you wanted to learn all about Peter Arno, a celebrated New Yorker cartoonist who died in 1968? You wouldn't get lucky. The items appearing in the first page of results give only the barest information on Arno's life and work.
Of course, it's not just information about cartoonists that's missing -- according to Manber there are thousands of black holes when it comes to things searchers want to know. What people need, Manber concluded about a year-and-a-half ago, is the information that would come "when an expert who knows this topic would tell you, if they had 15 minutes to explain."
So Manber began what he refers to as his pet project -- an effort to generate exactly those kind of answers in the top search results. The product, announced Wednesday, is called Knol.
"It's a nice, very simple word to remember, and it's part of knowledge," says Manber.
Google hopes that Manber's project will give experts who know their stuff a platform to share it with everyone else. Google is especially keen on seeding this information internationally, in languages where the online corpus is sparse.
From the Knol team's loft at Google headquarters, software engineer Mohsin Ahmed works out bugs in front of a panel of monitors at Googleplex. With $20 Ahmed created a simple red, yellow and green light bug detector that glows green above his head.
Photo courtesy Kat Wade/Wired.com
Here's how Knol works. Experts in a given subject log into a Google account and use the Knol software to post an item, also known as a knol. In some senses, the process is like producing a blog post -- but in this case it's not something written off the cuff but carefully crafted to coherently explain a single subject.
One key attribute: Knols are meant to be signed with the author's actual name. With permission, Google will actually verify the writer's identity, either by credit card or phone.
"The process will take 20 seconds with credit cards," says Knol product manager Cedric Dupont. Phone checks will take a minute or so. This vetting, Manber hopes, will give knols accountability and, in the case of high-status authors, the benefit of a solid reputation.
The format and tone are up to the author: Google won't intervene if your knol on F. Scott Fitzgerald opines that The Great Gatsby was really a dud. And it will certainly help if the knol delivers the goods in a pithy, captivating style. (Google won't, however, tolerate knols that violate copyright or include ****.)
Google is attempting to establish a model for a standard item, and has seeded the "Knolosphere" with a few hundred entries appearing on launch, largely in the field of health and medicine. Working with Google on this is Robert M. Wachter, a professor of medicine at the University of California, who also sits on Google's health advisory council.
Just like blogs, knols can include images, video and links. As a special bonus, The New Yorker will allow knol authors to include, free of charge, a single cartoon from the publication's 20,000-image archive to illuminate the subject. (Guess which Googler was behind that deal.)
Knols are treated pretty much like any web page -- found by following links, but readers will encounter most through search results from Google or other search engines. Google says that knols will get no special favors when its algorithms choose results, but clearly expects the best efforts to rocket towards the top of search results. Maybe even ahead of the ubiquitous Wikipedia items.
"A high-quality knol will rise up not just on Google but all the search engines," says Michael McNally, the project's technical lead.
Knol software engineer Ben McMahan concentrates on "firefighting last-minute bugs."
Photo courtesy Kat Wade/Wired.com
There's no limit on how many people can write knols on the same subjects, but presumably the inferior ones will be stalled in the back results pages while searchers encounter the best ones immediately.
Why would an expert on a subject take the time to write a knol? One reason would be an altruistic impulse to share wisdom with the world. There's also the ego juice that might come with being the first authority one encounters in a search for absinthe or Daryl Lamonica. By default, knols use a Creative Commons copyright license
, which allows copying and remixing. If they wish, authors can change the settings to register traditional copyright protection.
In addition, there's money involved. If authors OK it, Google will compensate them with revenue from advertisements served by the company's AdSense program. If someone writes a top-ranked knol on a subject that's matched with high-value clicks from Google ads (diseases, travel destinations, personal finance), the payout could be thousands of dollars. (Purists can keep the ads off.)
But Manber is emphatic that his project is not about the bucks. "If Knol doesn't improve search but generates some revenues, that'll be a failure for me," he says.
Many people, however, will find it puzzling that Google thinks it necessary to create a new platform for people to share information. Why bother, when Wikipedia will give you answers whether you're wondering about George M. Dallas (James Polk's vice-president) or the 13th Floor Elevators (an Austin psychedelic rock band formed in late 1965)?
One person asking that question is Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who learned about Knol a few months ago, when Google posted a blog teaser about the project.
"What is the added value?" Wales asks. "People already can put up web pages somewhere on the internet, put some ads on it if they want to get revenue or not put ads if they don't want the revenue."
Wales clearly thinks that his brainchild will satisfy most searchers. "If I type in Thomas Jefferson, there's a pretty good chance that the Wikipedia entry is more or less exactly what I'm looking for," he says.
Google says it isn't trying to compete with Wikipedia, but providing an alternative.
"I'm not suggesting one is better than the other, but different," says Manber.
And what would the difference be?
"One article is written by one person, and it's one person's opinion," says Manber. "You know who that person is and where they're coming from."
From the team's loft, Xiangtian Dai makes sure that Knol runs uniformly on different web browsers.
Photo courtesy Kat Wade/Wired.com
During one of my interviews with Manber I asked him to compare the first commissioned knol, about insomnia, with a Wikipedia item. The knol was written by Manber's wife, Rachel, who is an associate professor at Stanford University's Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Sleep Center.
Though Rachel Manber's item is a more coherent and thorough treatment of the subject than Wikipedia's, in some respects it's similar to the crowdsourced entry: a general definition followed by a discussion of causes and treatments.
But the top of the Wikipedia page on insomnia displays this caveat: "This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject." Touché.
By the way, Google isn't rejecting the wisdom of the crowd. Once an author creates a knol, the general public can improve it. People can suggest corrections, edits and amendments to the content -- a technique Google calls "a moderated edit."
Readers can also leave comments alongside the content. While the author is the arbiter of the item itself, and can reject suggestions, he or she can't delete the comments. Users can also rate knols on a five-star scale.
"I'm sure there will be knol spam," says Dupont, who says that Google will use its experience fighting spam in Blogger and other products to minimize it.
"If Google is able to pull it off, bring expert knowledge to the masses, that's absolutely wonderful," says Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, the company best known for providing trusted expert information in an encyclopedia format.
It's not Google that worries him, but Wikipedia, and he sounds like he'd like some help fending off Britannica's crowdsourced rival. "It's not the presence of Wikipedia that's a problem, it's the omnipresence of Wikipedia," he says.
In fact, he says, from what he hears about Knol, "it's very similar to things we're thinking and retooling Britannica to do." He hints that the company might be changing from its subscription model to a scheme where much of its content would be free to users -- and show up in search engines.
"If you're charging for content, you're behind the firewall. And if you're behind the firewall people don't call on you first," he says. As part of this process Britannica now encourages anyone to link to its items. Those following the link can read the full article free. Britannica also posts a daily info-nugget on Twitter.
But Cauz does imply that Google is stepping out of its sweet spot by generating content. "The issue here is that Google will become a publisher and will have moral liability and moral obligation for something that happens under its own brand -- and that is something that Google has never done," he says.
Google sees it differently, viewing Knol as a common-carrier platform like Blogger or YouTube. Knol pages won't even carry a Google logo.
"We are not publishers," says Manber. "We do not want to be editors. We do not want to have influence over what is written." He can't say it enough: It's about search. "There are millions of people with something in their head that they're not writing down," he says. "If I can get some of them to write it down, I'm helping everybody."
If Google's plan works, future searchers will get higher-quality results from searches of subjects commonplace and obscure -- even Peter Arno. In fact, a knol has already been written about The New Yorker cartoonist. If its author posts it -- he hasn't pulled the trigger yet -- Google won't have to work hard to verify the expert who worked for weeks to pen that item. It's Udi Manber.
Most of the Knol team takes a moment from working out last minute bugs to pose for a group shot at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Photo courtesy Kat Wade/Wired.com
Disclosure: Wired.com is owned by Condé Nast, publisher of
The New Yorker.
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