I remember, several years ago, reading an article about a new search engine that was gaining in popularity—it was reported to produce better search results than its competitors, and it had an interesting name and fun logo. I immediately switched over to give Google a try and never left.
Of course, at that time, I had no idea that I would eventually spend my days studying search engines and how they work, or the impact that Google would have on all of our lives. Then it was just a fun, trendy new tool.
Now approaching its 18th anniversary, Google is no longer a fun startup with no revenue, but a multinational technology company. The 2015 numbers show 57,000 employees, revenue of $74.54 billion, and a market capitalization of 373 billion dollars U.S.
Steven Levy’s book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is the inside story of how Google developed, and some of the issues and challenges it faced during its first dozen years.
I’ll leave the story, history, politics, and economics of Google for you to discover in the book, but here are six interesting facts that you might not know:
1. Larry Page & Sergey Brin Didn’t Set Out to Develop a Search Engine
Both were Stanford students and in need of dissertation topics. Together, they were going to work on “creating a system where people could make annotations and comments on websites.” However, they quickly realized that larger sites might collect many comments and would, therefore, require a rating system to determine what comments should appear first – based on the authority of the author of the comment.
Eventually, they decided that backlinks—links pointing to one site from other sites—could be used like citations in academia, the more links pointing to a website, the more authoritative and respected that website was.
To measure backlinks, they created a system called BackRub which allowed them identify and follow incoming links back to their source.
Once they started testing their system and realized the accuracy and quality of its rankings, they understood that it could be applied to search results. Larry Page named the website rankings system “PageRank” after himself.
2. Google Wasn’t a Unique Idea
Interestingly, about the same time that Page and Brin identified backlinks as a way to rank webpages, someone from IBM, and another person at Dow Jones Company, were also experimenting with a PageRank-like system. However, the people at the top of those large corporations ended up not being interested in getting involved in search.
3. The Founders Tried To Sell Google Early On
Neither Page or Brin were feeling very entrepreneurial when they discovered PageRank. Both wanted to continue their studies and finish their Ph.Ds. Over the next 1-2 years, they tried to sell their technology to existing search companies. Yahoo, AltaVista, and Excite all had the chance to buy at a bargain but declined.
4. The Name Was A Misspelling
Google was supposed to be named googol – a mathematical term written as a 1 followed by 100 zeros.
The name Googol was suggested by one of Page’s roommates and was representative of all of the data the search company would be managing. However, when Page went to buy the domain, he misspelled it and ended up buying Google.com instead. (it turns out googol.com was already taken anyway).
5. Google’s Homepage Design
Google’s homepage has been praised for its sparse, clean design, and while much testing and research had gone into it over the years, its original design was a result of Sergey’s limited design capabilities – they didn’t have a webmaster at the time, so he had to do it himself.
6. Google Analytics Was Not Supposed to be Free
Google’s early analytics program for advertisers was “hard to set up and not very accurate” so they set out to buy a better product, ultimately purchasing a company called Urchin for $20 million in 2004.
The plan was to charge users $500 per month for access to Google Analytics, however, due to a shortage of engineers and lack of experience in designing a billing system, they decided to launch it for free.
Makes you a little more appreciative of GA doesn’t it?
For anyone interested in search and search engines – presumably, everyone who visits this site – In the Plex is a must read – it is both entertaining and educational! I only wish there was a follow-up covering all that’s happened at Google since 2010.
Next Month on SEJ Book Club: The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
Next month, SEJ Executive Editor Kelsey Jones will review The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey. Feel free to pick a copy from Amazon or your local library and read along with us!
Want to see what the SEJ Book Club has read or is planning on reading next? Check out our GoodReads profile.
Editor Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for supporting SEJ.