Why did Google Knol fail?

Forbidden knowledge (photo by Ed Townend – CC-BY)

When Google announced their Knol service in December 2007, it was clear that Google had high hopes for the project. It was announced by Udi Manber, Google’s Vice-President of Engineering, as a place for named writers to share “units of knowledge”, in the form of authoritative articles called knols. It was Google’s hope that when someone searched a topic for the first time, they would find and read a knol about that topic. As if to underscore the importance of the project, the content was hosted on a subdomain of

Knol opened to the public in July 2008, with a collection of well-written knols authored by Google staffers and invited contributors. There was a widespread perception that Knol could become a “Wikipedia-killer”, and there soon appeared a flood of knols written by the public. Some writers were lured by the perceived prestige; others by the share of advertising revenue.

With the wheat came the chaff: first a trickle of spammy articles, then a deluge of articles from cranks who couldn’t resist the chance to post articles about their pet delusions. For some reason, water-fueled cars seemed to be the most popular topic for the crank brigade.

Google tirelessly deleted spam, blocked spammer’s accounts, and added tools to aid collaborative spam-fighting. They worked to address the quality of content by providing tools to track reputation, badges to reward contributions, and extra privileges such as the removal of the “no-follow” flag for high-quality contributors. Organizations such as eHow and the Public Library of Science made a sincere effort to use the platform productively.

The editing tools were continually enhanced. The editing interface provided version control with rollback, and allowed collaborative editing. Google made it as easy as possible to include tables, photos, videos, equations, slideshows and a wide range of interactive gadgets into knol articles. Millions of stock photos and cartoons were made available for authors to use on their knols. Authors could fine-tune email notifications according to their preferences, and detailed statistics were available for each article. Authors could choose Creative Commons licensing for their knols, or could keep them “All Rights Reserved”.

So why did Knol fail? Although it provided a great platform and powerful tools for article authors, Knol failed to offer much to make Knol compelling for readers. Without a lively audience of readers, many of the best authors departed and it was mostly the cranks who were left hanging around.

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