Google Knowledge Graph: Wikipedia on Steroids or the Web's Demise?

Further establishing itself as the Borg of the Web, Google is adding a Knowledge Graph capability to its search engine, which will roll out in the US first and then worldwide. Simply put, Google will now try and answer your question right on the search results page - no need to actually visit Wikipedia or your favourite travel information site when Google can simply assimilate their data and present it to you nicely formatted along with a few choice ads. Google already has most of the video content on the Web through YouTube, most of the geographic information through Maps and Earth, and an increasing share of the email, so why not? The user gets a quicker, and likely more useful, set of facts about their search.

At a glance, faster results are a no-brainer benefit for everyone. But like the spread of cheap, imported goods, there is a corrosive downside. Web publishers are cut out of the loop, risking their business models and ability to create the content that we all rely on. Google risks crushing the Web in its embrace - unintentionally loving it to death. Looking more closely at Knowledge Graph shows how the process works and why you may want to worry more than a little about it.

Google's Knowledge Graph - first steps to an information monopoly?

Google's Knowledge Graph is brand new - 'only' containing an estimated 3.5 billion facts about 500 million objects - but of course it will grow as rapidly as the Googleplex can organise additional information. Even now, it is a powerful tool for those who want quick answers and don't like wasting their time surfing to get them - loosely described as semantic search. For comparison, Wikipedia currently has less than 30 million pages. When Google decides a search is about one of the 500 million objects it has categorised, it displays the facts it has about that object in a separate 'knowledge panel' on the right of the page. Traditional search results and ads appear in the main body of the page on the left.

Google's Knowledge Graph shows not just links for the Bronx Zoo, but a panel of facts on the right-hand side of the page.

You can see here that Google has pulled out a map showing the location of the Bronx Zoo, along with some facts from Wikipedia, which to its credit are linked and attributed to Wikipedia. It also shows other topics that those curious about the Bronx Zoo are interested in. Interestingly, the knowledge panel is less useful in this case than the first search result - which reports the top links from the Bronx Zoo site itself - but for many topics that don't have a definitive website, the knowledge panel is a handy place to get started with research.

Google vs. Bing: Do you trust the Web or your friends?

While Google is using brute force to tame all the information on the planet in its effort to bootstrap the semantic web, Bing is taking a more surgical, and social, approach by sifting through data about and from your friends to decide what might be important to you. Once you turn on Bing's new Sidebar and sign into Facebook, Bing will happily crawl through any and all information it can find in your friends' profiles or posts to cough up a variety of factoids. Some can be very useful - like a friend's photo album from a place you're interested in visiting or the fact that someone has just reviewed a movie you're curious about. Others are at best trivia - like the information that a long-lost business colleague used to live 100 miles from a place you're considering for vacation, or that the musician 'Taj Mahal' recently tweeted, shown in response to an attempt to find out which friends might know something about the Taj Mahal in India.

Comparing the two, so far I'd give the edge to Google and the Knowledge Graph. Useful snippets from friends (and I've got around 800 FB friends, so that should be a good sample) are few and far between in my efforts to use the new Bing sidebar. I can see that with time and improved linking technology the amount of useful information from friends will improve, but it's hard to guess by how much. For my Bronx Zoo example, Bing's sidebar coughed up a photo of a friend's daughter, presumably taken at the zoo, as well as letting me know that two of my friends used to live in north New Jersey towns. None of it very useful in planning my event there.

Bing also offers an 'ask friends' where I can ask my friends to help me with a search. Frankly, I'm not willing to even experiment with that. If I have a topic that I'm not sure how to approach, I'm old-fashioned enough to email a couple friends who I think might be able to help out. So posting a search would only be useful if I could make it visible to just a few friends, instead of all 800, but that doesn't seem possible yet. Interestingly, because of the way Google+ got started - with circles from the beginning - the same idea might actually work for me if Google implemented it so that I could ask a particular circle. Hopefully Bing will also allow the feature to be restricted to particular lists of friends.

One advantage of Bing's Social Search over Google's Search Plus Your World, at least for me, is that Bing clearly separates the social results from web search results. It is confusing and frankly a little weird to be doing a web search on Google and have various posts and articles written by me or my friends mixed willy-nilly into the results. Sometimes they're useful, but other times they just get in the way since I'm really trying to look outward for new information, not navel-gazing by re-reading my old articles.

Knowledge Graph: The end of web publishing?

Like the snake that eats its own tail, there is a very serious problem with the way Google's Knowledge Graph is likely to grow. Over time it will pull more and more information into its database - likely it has already swallowed the useful parts of Wikipedia - and give users less reason to actually traverse the web and visit any of the sites from which it has gleaned its information. In turn, of course, that will starve those sites of needed revenue (or in the case of Wikipedia, attention and donations) and cause them to slow their acquisition and publication of knowledge. How long will it be before the 'Report a Problem' feature of Google's Knowledge Graph becomes more important to the web than submitting a correction through the arduous Wikipedia edit and review process? The resulting paradigm clearly isn't stable.

This problem isn't lost on Google, although its current answers aren't particularly satisfying. Google's executive in charge of search, Amit Singhal, says that as search engines improve, users perform more searches and also create more traffic to external websites. The trouble with that platitude is that in the past the improvements have been related to providing more accurate links to external sites - inviting increased browsing - and now they are being geared at providing answers directly on the Google site, which is an entirely different thing that could even decrease subsequent browsing.

Google's head of Search, Amit Singhal, at SMX London 2012, on the issue of how Google's Knowledge Graph affects publishers.

Singhal also explains that in order to survive, websites have to move further up the value chain, and not simply answer questions the search engine is able to. He uses the annoying and trivial example of a site providing the answer to '2+2'. Unfortunately, that answer shows the issue isn't really deeply concerning to him, and apparently to Google. There is no 'bright-line rule' beyond which Google won't venture, only practical limits on its technology. This sounds very similar to the issue with PC utility software vendors providing services that are eventually bundled into the operating system. Realistically, it's a warning shot across the bow of publishers that Google considers anything anyone wants to know as fair game, and if it can figure out how to provide that knowledge within its ecosystem and keep all the money, it will.

Once Google has effectively tied its Knowledge Graph into its digitised library of almost every book on the planet and scraped the contents of the semantic web into its Googleplex, it will have a practical monopoly on access to many kinds of information - even if you have a site with some other perspective, users will likely need to find it through Google. Public opinion, and in turn public policy, will get shaped by which factoids Google serves up in response to controversial searches like 'climate change' or 'intellectual property protection'.

The Google Knowledge Graph results for global warming feature a well-known climate sceptic and an activist. Fair and balanced, maybe, but certainly a step towards editorial control coming from Google.

There is something more than a little insidious and even terrifying about this prospect. By declaring itself a repository of knowledge, rather than just an honest broker providing equal access to resources on the web, Google is making itself the sole arbiter of truth - or at least sole editor of the presented truth. Even Wikipedia provides an open, community-driven, process for editing, reviewing, and correcting facts as part of serving the community. If Google continues down its current path without articulating a clear set of transparent checks, balance, and access rules - or limiting itself to the role of a 'common carrier' for the web's information - it is likely we'll soon hear a clamour for extending anti-trust regulations to limit monopolies on the access to knowledge.

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Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved. Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.