Googlezilla: is Size Inherently Evil?

Google I’ve often wondered about the relationship of corporate size and corporate wrongdoing. Is there a connection beyond the coincidental, beyond what one would expect statistically by the fact that more people means more opportunity for wrongdoing? One of Google‘s well-known guiding principles has always been “do no evil.”1 I have to credit them for the gutsy move of putting it right out there like that… but you know eventually it’s going to draw criticism. Given Google’s now-gargantuan size, this motto, and a recent event or two, it only makes sense to see if these dots connect with my recurring question about size and evil.This week there’s been some talk about Google’s announcement of Knol this past Friday, and though I’ve not read anything near the extent of it, I wouldn’t exactly suggest there is any dancing in the streets over the news. Knol is, for lack of any better description, Google’s version of Wikipedia, the Internet’s premiere user-generated repository of knowledge. It’s been observed that Wikipedia dominates Google search results to the tune of 27% of #1 search results—and with good reason, I suggest. Others have suggested that this attracted Google’s attention and prompted their release of a competitive product. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s entry for Knol is currently the #7 search result for “knol” on Google2. Since Knol (a coined word for “a unit of knowledge”) is in private beta, Google only offered a screenshot, which still offers a good portrayal of what Knol intends to be. At a glance, the answer is “Wikipedia.”

It’s a tall order to take on a project like Wikipeda in the attempt to unseat it.

Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on some 9,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. As of today, there are 2,135,382 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.3

For the sake of product differentiation, Google says

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors’ names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors — but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content.

Oddly though, after highlighting the goal of encouraging experts to write articles to share their knowledge, the same article says “Once testing is completed, participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality.”4 Is anyone confused by the fact that the most efficient way to meet the goal of encouraging the sharing of knowledge might have been to push people to contribute to Wikipedia? This would not have met the goal of crediting authors, but mightn’t that have been done another way? Wikipedia does have behind-the-scenes tracking of who makes what edits, it just isn’t made front-and-center.5 Wikipedia is not a good place for true experts to contribute, since their original research will be discounted by Wikipedia editorial policy In many cases this is a good thing, but even the leading expert in a field will have to first publish elsewhere and then have the material linked or quoted by a third party… a bit cumbersome. As far as I can tell, this is perhaps the major difference between the two.

Oh, wait. Did I forget something? Wikipedia doesn’t carry advertising. Knol will. Michael Arrington gets down to it fairly well: “Wikipedia, a non-profit, has stubbornly resisted any efforts to monetize its pages. Google would kill to supply ads to Wikipedia. Barring that, competing with them makes a lot of sense. Google needs to grow revenue to support their valuation. And for that, they need ad inventory.” This is, whatever else one might say, is the soundest explanation of Google’s purchase of YouTube.6 Google has become so large that it doesn’t have enough space to deliver the ads it sells. Of necessity, this drives the company to diversify from or extend its business model of ad-sponsored search into content hosting. If that doesn’t work, they will have to consider content creation as well, but the power of mass collaboration7 should handle that for them well enough. The problem is that they have to control the terms under which the content is served… and there’s the rub.

The power of gargantuan Google tossing its weight around the room could have serious implications for an organization like Wikipedia. And if Google’s quest to control adspace on user-generated content has a detrimental impact on the minding-its-own-business nonprofit Wikipedia, is that perhaps a negative outcome? Evil, even? And largely due to Wikipedia’s commitment not to carry advertising. I’m still left with the question, but it can be personalized to Google. Have they as a company become so large that their continued growth can only be sustained by doing “evil” to (damaging) others, even inadvertently? There must be some kind of proverb for this… a bull in a china shop? You can share a bed with an elephant, but beware of it rolling over in its sleep. Perhaps it didn’t intend to crush your ribcage…

Footnotes:

  1. As it’s commonly quoted; it has been (re)stated by Google under the category of “Ten Things” as “You can make money without doing evil.” [back]
  2. By the way, Google’s PageRank algorithm means the more links to the Wikipedia entry on Knol, the higher the result it returns in a Google search; Google’s own explanation of PageRank is second to Wikipedia’s in a Google search for “pagerank”. [back]
  3. Wikipedia:About; also see Wikipedia:Statistics. [back]
  4. Google Blog: Encouraging people to contribute knowledge [back]
  5. See for example, the revision history of the Knol article; even anonymous edits can be tracked to some extent using the third-party WikiScanner. [back]
  6. Yes, I realize Google ads are not presently a huge feature on the YouTube site… give it time; it’s still evolving. [back]
  7. See Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. [back]