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Google Knol: The World's Editor-in-Chief & Omni-Publisher? Can you say "Dis-intermediation?"

Knol, Google's newly announced online publishing service, is an ominous direct competitive threat to traditional newspaper/magazine/journal publishers, NOT a challenge to Wikipedia as many in content circles naively and wishfully think.

  • Like the frog that has the good sense to jump out of boiling water, but who can be lulled into a false sense of security and get cooked if the tempature increases gradually...
    • ...publishers of all types currently have a false sense of security that Google is targeting Wikipedia and not them because Google has YET to really monetize Google News or YouTube.

Wake up publishers/editors! Google, with by far the world's largest:

  • Audience (approaching 1 billion people)
  • Advertiser network (>1 million advertisers)
  • Database on content value (from >1 million website Adsense partners);
  •  Archive of all types of information;
  • Data centers (>1 million servers);
  •  Online publishing service, Knol...

Why is Google Knol a direct publishing competitor and not a Wiki challenger?

  • Technically and in practice, anyone can edit wikipedia entries. This makes it a pure collaborative/crowd-sourcing model, while in Knol, the author is in control of the content more like a traditional publisher.
  • Economically, Wikipedia is a not-for-profit that runs off of donations; Google's Knol is a for-profit operation.
    • Per Google: "If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with a revenue share from the proceeds of those ad placements."
  • Moreover, Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained the purpose of Knol near the end of his talk at the Economic Club of Washington.
    • He explained that the danger on the web is that in the race for speed, the "best" articles are seldom at the top of the rankings.
    • In other words, the most "popular" articles from the search algorithm, often aren't the most insightful.
    • Thus, Knol is a way for Google to highlight "experts" and the "best" content.   

Why is Knol such a big disintermediation threat for publishers?

  • What Google calls "authors," publishers call reporters, writers and columnists; what Google calls a "group of authors," publishers call a newspaper, magazine, journal or a news site.
  •  With Google Knol, authors eventually won't need their publication's publishing and distribution platform capabilities -- because Google provides a "free" wholesale online platform with much greater scale and scope.
  • With the Google Knol publishing platform integrated into to Google's world-leading search/ad engine platform, authors would no longer need the publication's brand, because they could leverage Google's #1 world brand and be "found" through Google's world-dominant search engine.
  • With Google's Knol model, reporters, writers, columnists etc. would no longer have to abide by their publisher's editing, story preferences, deadlines, requirements, or professional standards, because as Google Knol "authors," Google empowers them to be self-publishers -- at no cost.
    • Moreover, rather than having a publisher/editor decide what content gets published, and how prominently it is "pushed" -- i.e. front page, top story/link,... Google's search engine does all that editorial function -- automatically.
      •  Increasingly, Google's search algorithm determines what content gets found, at the top of the search or on the first page, and what content gets buried -- hence Google's increasing and de facto power to be the "World's Editor-in-Chief."

How could this dis-intermediation be anti-competitive?


Google has the market power to foreclose publishing competition over time.

  • To help Google Knol succeed, Google has both the incentive and the wherewithal to attract big name Knol "authors" to build-up the Knol content platform and create its own first-mover network effect - like it created in buying YouTube.
    • Google was willing to pay ~$1.8B for YouTube's no-revenue first-mover dominance in video streaming.
    • Google guaranteed MySpace $900m over three years to monetize MySpace's traffic.
    • Google pays websites almost $5B a year in "Traffic Acquisition Costs."
    •  Google's Knol revenue-sharing business model is similar to its Adsense and Adwords revenue-sharing model.
  • Since the proposed Google-Yahoo partnership would control roughly a monopoly 90% share of search advertising revenues, Google de facto controls the only proven way to monetize content online.
    • If Google chose to expend its surplus market power to establish a first-mover network effect as a "free" wholesale online publishing service, no other company has the wherewithal to match Google's wholesale online publishing scale and scope and Knol's cross-subsidized 'free' price.
      •  Yahoo will be paid ~$800M to be Google's "partner" and Microsoft lost ~$1.2B last year, while and Time Warner's AOL are losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
      •    Newspapers are generally losing revenues because of Internet classified ads and because they can only monetize their content online at a fraction of what they can offline.
    • There is simply no entity that can compete with a 'free' wholesale publishing service built on top of Google's world dominant: audience, advertiser network, website network, database of private user intentions, information searched, and data center infrastructure.

Will Google's search be neutral if Google shares in revenue from Google Knol content?

  • In other words, is it realistic to believe that Google's opaque and unauditable search algorithm will not rank Google Knol content that it makes money on, higher than competitors' content that Google makes no extra money on?
    • Remember, Google core business, AdSense, already sells the top search results to the highest bidder and minimally represents them as "Sponsored Links." 
      • (Surveys suggest many users don't understand that barely shaded "sponsored links" are indeed paid-for placements.)

How is this an antitrust issue or an anti-competitive problem?

  • If antitrust authorities determine that Google has market power, and is anti-competitively exercising it to reduce competition, antitrust authorities are likely to have serious concerns about Google's searches not being neutral or objective -- as they are represented to be to the public.
  • The precedent here is the Eastern Airlines SABRE case where the airlines were found to be anti-competitive in steering online queries to their owned-businesses in an anti-competitive discriminatory fashion.

Bottom line: Google Knol is no benign or minor development for traditional publishers of newspapers, magazines, journals, etc.

  • With Knol as their free wholesale publishing platform, YouTube as their free wholesale video distribution platform, and AdSense/AdWords/DoubleClick as the world's dominant Internet monetization engine for online content, Google may be the most powerful vertically-integrated media conglomerate in the world going forward.
    • None of Google's vertically integrated media competitors is built on top of  monopoly power.
    • Hence, Google Knol gives publishers a real and big stake in the outcome of the Google-Yahoo antitrust review. 

The "open" question is whether publishers will be the frog that does nothing and slowly gets cooked in water that is being brought to a boil, or will publishers be the frog that recognizes the danger, acts, and survives?