Whatever you think about the kooks at Wikipedia - the crazed Goths banning chunks of Utah, a COO prone to drunken rampages and embezzlement, and a Roi Soleil answering to himself - one thing is in no doubt. The project has saved Google's original business.
Two years ago, the advertising giant's search engine was fighting a losing battle against spam. A perfect storm of ruthlessly effective SEO and wittering blogtards meant that Google's search engine was being swamped by noise - or "Goobage", as some call it.
This had spawned a black economy of "private label articles", gibberish text that's cut and pasted together by human editors. This provided the raw material for software bots that could create and populate 24 blogs a minute. Google had examined, but then flunked the chance to remove blogs from its main index five years ago.
As a result, almost one third of Google's index is created by software robots - but Google doesn't know which third.
Then Google had a brainwave. Realizing that few searchers explore beyond the top three results, it decided to give a powerful boost to Wikipedia. Nevermind the 6 billion junk pages - Google need only ensure users clicked on the two million Wikipedia entries. As a consequence, Wikipedia entries rose to the top of the rankings. During 2006, Wikipedia entries eclipsed all others, and typically feature in the top three SERPs, or the top search result.
The human cost of this is has indeed been high. Maintaining the Wikipedia entries even in their current, advanced state of entropy entails running a virtual sweatshop of unpaid volunteer labour. But this is a cost borne by Wikipedia, not Google, which gets a more "relevant" search engine for free.
So how does Google express it's gratitude to the Wikipedians? By kicking them when they're down.
GPedia: Get Fiddling!
Google is starting a Wikipedia of its own: surely signalling an end to Jimbo's globe-trotting Imperial Adventure, and marking an ominous move into the business of content production that will have publishers everywhere a little more worried this weekend.
The news was announced by Google's VP of engineering Udi Manber yesterday evening, in a post entitled Encouraging people to contribute knowledge.
(Out on Planet Google, "facts" and "knowledge" run seamlessly into each other - as easily as "knowledge" runs into "wisdom"!)
Google calls the wiki software behind its 'Pedia "Knols", and Manber says it's explicitly designed to show up as the first entry on Google's search results pages. In Manber's words, it's "... meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read."
"Google will not serve as an editor in any way," explains Manber, adding in a strange turn of phrase, "and will not bless any content."
But what else is a "blessing", other than the assurance that a page will appear prominently at the top of the search results. Google already gives its own properties, such as Blogger and Orkut, a higher Page Rank rating.
Google will of course run advertisments on GPedia, and give the author a share of the revenue from these ads. (Cue a mad scramble to write the "Britney" entry, or anything to do with sex) Manber says Google will give away the content created to other search engines - but it isn't yet clear whether the author sees any revenue from downstream licensing. (Remember this is still Sweatshop 2.0).
Manber does seem vaguely aware, however, that imitating Wikipedia will cause Wikipedia-related problems.
The Wiki "democracy" - where the public votes for the truth - is now little more than a flimsy cover story used for its fund-raising efforts. Topics are now tightly controlled by a 14-year-old you've never heard of, who has risen to the top of the social backstabbing by seeing off rival "editors", by forming cliques and drinking huge amounts of Red Bull. This is truly survival of the fittest.
"Participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality," he writes.
(Er, yes indeed. Give this man a pay rise, Larry.)
So just like a modern supermarket, then, Google is moving into the content sourcing as well as distribution business. Much of its defence against copyright holders (such as newspapers) is that it merely provides a service to point to their content. Now it's doing its own.
(And now we know why Google has never given much favour to Encyclopedia Britannica, which has tens of thousands of link-rich entries browsable for free.)
Whether you view this as a resounding vote of no confidence in the Wikipedia project, or simply as a landgrab for text advertising, the outcome may well be the same: accelerating Wikipedia's plans to go commercial.
Perhaps we can think of it as 2.0 update of Marx's view of history, in which tragedy is repeated as farce. When farcical history repeats itself, it comes with text ads? ®