Google is without a doubt one of the greatest technology success stories of the modern era. They are so well known that their name has become a verb (‘Just Google it’), a mark of notoriety that can be claimed by almost no one else.
They’re also well known as an excellent place to work, with top coders and analysts competing fiercely for coveted spots on the Google engineering teams.
But for all this, the story of how they got their name and what it means isn’t well known.
That changes now.
What Was Google’s Name Before?
The origins of Google have all but passed into tech-company legend, but the story goes that Sergey Brin and Larry Page were two humble graduate students working at Stanford when they realized the potential of a new search engine platform for the growing Internet.
Being more brilliant at math and computer science than they were at naming companies, the first working title for Google was actually ‘BackRub.’ This comes from the fact that Google works primarily by following backlinks from one website to another. It uses information like on-page content and the number of links to and from a website to gauge how authoritative a site is and whether it’s relevant to a given search query.
Eventually the pair realized that BackRub is a truly terrible name, and began casting about for alternatives.
Where Does the Name ‘Google’ Come From?
At some point in 1997, the core team behind Google was brainstorming ideas to replace ‘BackRub.’ They wanted an interesting word that adequately conveyed the truly enormous volume of information their search engine would process.
One proposal was for the word ‘Googolplex.’ To understand what a Googolplex is, we need to first learn what a Googol is. A Googol is 10 raised to the power of 100, or 1 followed by 100 zeros. A Googolplex is a number of nearly incomprehensible size, being defined as ‘1 followed by a Googol of zeros’.
When mathematicians try to provide an intuition for how big a Googolplex is, they start talking about the number of electrons in the universe, or they point out that if you printed a Googolplex of zeros on paper the resulting books would weigh more than two galaxies combined.
To the future heads of Google, a Googolplex accurately represented how much information they hoped to provide, but they preferred the shorter ‘Googol.’ Sean Anderson, another Stanford graduate student who was at the brainstorming session, did an Internet search for the name to see if it was available as a website domain.
But he misspelled it as ‘Google.’ Because google.com was available, and Larry Page liked the name, he registered it a few hours later.
And this incorrectly spelled version of an arcane bit of mathematical trivia has become one of the most famous company names of all time.