Google’s ‘Knol’ is Direct Challenge to Media Companies

Google today announced the launch of Knol, a Wikipedia-esque site that hosts articles from contributors. Google hopes the articles become among the most authoritative on the Web — which represents a direct challenge to media sites.

In a June 2006 interview with the LA Times, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked whether Google is a media company or a technology company. His response:

“It’s better to think of Google as a technology company. Google is run by three computer scientists, and Google is an innovator in technology in our space. We’re in the advertising business – 99% of our revenue is advertising-related. But that doesn’t make us a media company. We don’t do our own content. We get you to someone else’s content faster.

If today’s launch of Google’s Knol is any indication, this line of thinking has fundamentally changed. Google, in short, is becoming a full-fledged media company in direct competition with established news and knowledge sites.

Knol –short for “knowledge– is Google’s new Wikipedia-esque site that hosts authoritative articles on a wide variety of subjects. Knol recruits contributors to write articles on subjects such as medical conditions, sports and more. Article authors earn money by running AdSense campaigns on their content. Knol also offers a suite of collaboration tools that allows other users to suggest changes to the original article.

This move is a fundamental shift from Google’s traditional directive of helping users find content, as opposed to creating and hosting the content. It is a shift that has continued as Google acquired Blogger, launched Google Page Creator, allowed users to publish documents with Google Docs and began hosting Associated Press articles and user commentary on its Google News service (as opposed to linking to AP affiliates’ stories and leaving comments to the news sites).

However, Google also brings an enormous amount of traffic to news sites — traffic that means big advertising dollars. Most media companies worth their salt have significant search engine optimization efforts in place to make sure those who seek information are likely to find it on a news site. It’s for that reason that news organizations’ view of Google approaches the realm of bipolar disorder. News sites beg for the Google traffic but are also being encroached upon by Google features, such as Knol and new search boxes that let users bypass news sites’ own search features (which does help people actually find stuff for a change).

The Guardian’s Jack Schofield summarizes it well when he writes that “Knol represents an attack on the media industry in general.” TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington believes that Knol may be “a step too far.” Search engine expert and author Danny Sullivan also agrees, saying that:

“[Google’s] Search, Ads, & Apps mantra that CEO Eric Schmidt has repeated on several occasions underscores that offering content tools is fair game within its mission. But does hosting content turn it into a competitor with other content providers and set up an unfair advantage in gaining traffic that might otherwise flow to them?”

Knol also represents a potential conflict of interest in Google’s own search results. If Knol articles are meant to be “authoritative articles about specific topics,” those familiar with search engine optimization will see the red flag. Google’s incentive to make Knol articles the most authoritative on the Internet puts it in direct competition with topic-specific columnists, news stories on a plethora of subjects and web sites such as and Wikipedia. Because Google itself creates the algorithms that define what is “authoritative,” Google would have an unfair advantage over other sites — even if it is simply in terms of using in-house knowledge as opposed to somehow altering the actual ranking algorithms.

Nevertheless, BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis has made the point that it is unproductive to argue whether Google is a friend or foe. He is correct in that we should try to emulate Google, rather than become disgruntled and blame the news industry’s woes on the search giant. Google’s endeavors at hosting and creating content doesn’t mean news sites can’t continue the symbiotic relationship with search engines.

But make no mistake; Google isn’t becoming a direct competitor to traditional news and media sites. It already is.

Author: Danny Sanchez

Danny Sanchez is the Audience Development Manager at Tribune's and Danny has been with Tribune since 2005 in a variety of editorial, digital and product development roles in Hartford, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. He has also previously worked in the newsrooms of the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald.

33 thoughts on “Google’s ‘Knol’ is Direct Challenge to Media Companies”

  1. “If today’s launch of Google’s Knol is any indication, this line of thinking has fundamentally changed. Google, in short, is becoming a full-fledged media company in direct competition with established news and knowledge sites.”

    I respectfully disagree; Knol is exactly what Schmidt means when he talks about getting people to someone else’s information faster. If I accept your conclusion, then Google would have fundamentally changed with Blogger, too, since that’s another platform for producing content. I’m not sure that Knol is an attack on the news media industry, in that the industry A) doesn’t have a monopoly on content and B) the industry isn’t in the business of publishing encyclopedias (not mainly, at least).

  2. Geez. I mean, is there any indication of how timely or editorial these things can be? Obviously, it’s great that 30 seconds after election results are published, editors are on wikipedia making changes, but people will never have the mediawiki rss for changes to wiki pages sending updates to their phone, or tuned to a “wikipedia changes” TV station – I don’t think the media goes away, I just think they need to start using tools like this as their archive, and the channels they already know to inform and filter, same as they are doing now.

  3. I think this argument would be stronger if Goog was creating knols itself; it’s just creating a Wiki-like platform. The key advantage of this as opposed to Wikipedia is the whole ‘establish my credentials,’ which looks like it takes a very Google-like approach of using tech to solve problems for a better product.

    Also, why wouldn’t journalists (experts in our own right) write our own knols?

  4. @Derek In the post, I did say that it is a continuation of a trend, citing Blogger and a few other Google initiatives. Perhaps Knol sticks out to me more because it is attempting to become an editorial brand under the Knol banner, as opposed to a loose collection of blogs that don’t emphasize a particular brand. One never says, “I’m going to check out Blogger to find news on the latest treatments for skin cancer.” But with Knol, that seems to be one of the goals. You’re right that news sites’ content isn’t encyclopedic in nature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. After all, that’s what sites like and Times Topics is all about.

    @Ryan You make some good points. Sites like Knol represent an opportunity to extend that symbiotic relationship by having Knol authors cite content from other media sources. You’re also dead on that we need to look at tools like this to improve our sites. I don’t think Knol is meant to REPLACE news sites (it’s more a knowledge repository than current events site), but it does signal increasing initiatives to create content, which will compete with media companies’ content on keyword searches.

  5. Ok, but there’s a huge difference between a continuation of a trend towards creating and maintaining a platform *for* content and the fundamental shift to actually creating that content yourself. You call it a fundamental change; I think that’s not the case at all. Producing content is expensive and messy; Google likes to organize content once it’s produced. Why would they turn away from their organizing mission to a business that they have little or no expertise in? I don’t see Knol – or anything else they’ve done – as evidence of that goal.

  6. I think your last sentence summarizes my feelings pretty well. Knol is nothing we aren’t already facing; indeed, it’s meant to compete directly with Wikipedia, not the media.

    O’Reilly explains that argument a lot better than I:

    I think that’s Google’s motivation. Wikipedia is showing up as hit #1 a bunch. Doing what they do — better (theoretically) — makes sense.

    How often does a new org show up as hit #1? And is that likely to change due to Knol? I’d say 1) Rarely. 2) No.

  7. @Hartnett is absolutely right that Google has been a competitor for advertising dollars all the way back to when it launched AdWords. For this post, I focused on Google’s seeming shift from billing itself as a technology company with no intentions of becoming a media company. Schmidt’s quote at the beginning clearly states he doesn’t see Google as being a media company. In light of the new initiatives Google has launched, coupled with the fact that they’re drinking from the same well for ad dollars, I have to disagree with Schmidt’s assertion.

    @Wynn “Media companies” doesn’t just mean newspapers and TV stations. If Knol has an article about heart disease, doesn’t that compete with WebMD’s article on the subject? If Knol writers produce an article on knitting, doesn’t that compete with’s knitting how-to articles ( is owned by NYT Co., btw)? Doesn’t an article on “The Dark Knight” movie compete with IMDB and newspaper reviews of that movie? So on, and so on.

    Also, whether a news site is the #1 result or not, that doesn’t change the fact that Google delivers enormous amounts of media sites’ traffic (Results will vary, but I’ve seen 1/3 or more).

    @Derek doesn’t the fact that Google is hosting the content on their servers, paying for it by way of AdSense and publishing it under their own brand make them a publisher? Google isn’t at the point of “editing” content in the traditional newspaper sense, but they are certainly producing it with Knol — and that content still competes with other sites. Given that Schmidt said as little as two years ago that Google isn’t a media company, and here we are with Blogger and Knol under Google, it makes one wonder what’s coming down the line two years from today.

  8. @Chris Buddy, with the news industry how it is, I think Knol is going to find itself plenty of former journalists to fill its content coffers. Come to think of it, I could use a little extra beer money…

    How does Knol’s relationship with its contributors differ significantly from that of a newspaper or magazine with a freelancer offering a non-exclusive article? Both are publishing the content under their brands and selling advertising against the content.

    If anything, this should be a wake-up call to media companies that they need to develop revenue-sharing frameworks for non-staff contributors, lest they all get snapped up by sites like Knol and PayPerPost. Whether one views Knol and Google as a competitor or not, that doesn’t change the fact that we need to look closely at Google’s moves and start responding with our own innovation.

  9. Of course Google is a publisher; so is the UN. I’m not sure it’s a fundamental shift that Google publishes other people’s content. You could argue that just the search engine did that by making other people’s content more broadly available. The difference is that Google does not have and has never, to my knowledge, expressed interest in having, employees to do gathering and publishing of information by hand.

    That would be, in my book, a direct challenge to the news industry. The challenge Google now presents is a different one; they *organize* information better. They do not produce it better.

  10. Being that the non-profit Council on Foreign Relations won an ONA Award last year, I wouldn’t rule out NGOs from competing against traditional news sources 😉 (Or maybe Matt Wynn is right, and I’m seeing goblins in every shadow.)

    I do see your point that Google doesn’t hire employees in the traditional sense solely to produce content. That is a big distinction between Google and Yahoo with its hordes of content-producing staff.

    However, I’d still argue that because Google is paying its Knol contributors via AdSense revenue-sharing that it becomes –or comes very close to– them paying for and publishing content in the way a media company does. Sure, it’s more entrepreneurial than getting a paycheck every week with benefits, but it’s still Google’s dollars going to writers in exchange for content that Google monetizes. How is that fundamentally different from Gawker Media paying by the page view on its blogs?

  11. It’s fundamentally different because Google doesn’t rely on Knol for its profits. It’s not a core business for them; they probably would rather make more money than they make off searches that lead people to Wikipedia. Gawker Media *needs* the money that its bloggers bring in; paying by page view underscores that need. Do you honestly believe that Knol (or even Blogger) are as important to Google’s long-term success as pageviews are to Gawker Media? Cause I don’t.

    I’m with Wynn; the “Google is the boogeyman” meme distracts the news biz from what it needs to be focusing on. Do you think they spend their time worrying about us? No – because they are a technology company.

  12. I’m in agreement with both of you guys that the Google boogeyman obsession isn’t where our heads need to be totally at. Folks who blame Google for our troubles aren’t seeing the rest of the picture. We need to look to Google for ideas, not to assess blame for our own faults. That doesn’t mean Google isn’t eating some of our lunch though. Media organizations would do right to become more like technology companies, something I think you guys at the NY Times are leading the way on. Lisa Williams did a great talk on the subject not too long ago:

    No, I don’t think Knol is as critical to Google’s success as page views are to Gawker. Google’s bread and butter –for the time being– is contextual search advertising. My point is that Gawker’s arrangement with its writers is similar in spirit to Knol’s with its contributors.

    That said, why is Google spending significant time and resources on developing content-driven platforms/sites like Blogger and Knol then? For kicks? No, they’re increasing their ad inventory in a way that lets them control more of the supply chain.

    And I think they’d much rather make money off searches that go to their own pages, where their own AdSense is running. It’s like a 2-for-1 special!

  13. And my point is that a similarity doesn’t make for a fundamental shift in a company’s business.

    At the risk of prolonging this, I’d question whether Google is in fact spending “significant time and resources” on either Blogger or Knol. Seems to me that Blogger’s changes have not been nearly as significant as other apps more central to Google’s business focus, and while I have no way of knowing how much it spent on Knol, I think you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that it was more significant or costly than half-a-dozen, if not more, other things Google is doing right now. Yes, it brings in more revenue. But does it mean that Google will now compete with news companies in their core activities? Hardly.

  14. I really don’t see how we can claim that Google owns the content. It is a publishing medium where authors can copywrite their work. What will be interesting to watch is when the time comes for an author to challenge Google’s authority over content they provided them.

  15. Incredible news. I hadn’t known this was in the works. How are they going to ensure that a subject an author is writing about is one he really knows about? They put the author in charge of a subject and he can allow others to collaborate or not… seems less valid than a wide open wiki model where anyone can change it… I’m not so sure I like this Knol idea – but, I may apply to write on some Thailand locations to see if I might be considered expert enough – having lived here 4 years.

  16. Hey dude — you’re not alone seeing goblins. I see them, too. EVERYWHERE.

    I just wonder if that’s because, as an industry, we have no idea what the #$%k we do anymore, so we run 900 different directions at once and hope something sticks.

    I think you’re onto something, but, like you said, this is really nothing new. I’m still in the dark about how it’s a departure from Wikipedia, which we’re already dealing with.

    All that aside, if you figure out how to translate Knol into beer money, would you mind cluing me in?

  17. Google as a traditional competitor? You’re kidding!

    Traditional media produce content and aims at deliver it to their audience
    Google enable individuals to produce content and help them deliver it to their peers.

    In what way traditional media help me sharing my knowledge? No way!

  18. I respectfully disagree. IMHO:

    1) Knol is not Wikipedia-esque site, the concepts are very different. It’s more similar to to me.

    2) Google is not publishing Knol themselves, they only created the platform.

    The important question not asked is – why media didn’t already create their own Knol?

  19. @quirkyalone IS a media site. Additionally, it’s owned by the New York Times company. There are other Knol-esque sites out there already, such as Wikipedia,, Squidoo, Yahoo! Answers and others. Google isn’t inventing radically different here; they’re just hoping to capitalize on their huge user base to make Knol competitive with those other sites.

    I’ve also been hearing that argument that Google “is merely creating a platform.” Well, every media site out there sits on one platform or another. At the end of the day, Google is hosting content on their servers under their brand, paying contributors to write it and then making advertising revenue off it. That fits the definition of a media/content-driven site if I ever saw it.

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