Google was initially named “BackRub,” a research project that Larry Page and Sergey Brin started in 1996 while they were both PhD candidates at Stanford University in Stanford, California.
The project initially included an unofficial “third founder,” Scott Hassan, the lead programmer who wrote a large portion of the code for the original Google Search engine, but he left before Google was formally founded as a company. Hassan went on to pursue a robotics career and established Willow Garage in 2006.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, are undoubtedly wordplay enthusiasts, and they appear to have a thing for business names that are both silly and important at the same time.
However, this was by no means the first time the two had played with words. Before Google existed as an entity, in 1996, Page and Brin were already coming up with nerdy names for search engines.
According to Google’s website and Stanford’s David Koller, Page and Brin’s 1996 entry into the realm of search engines was originally known as “BackRub.” They gave it this name because the program examined “back links” on the internet to determine the significance of a website and the websites it was linked to. BackRub ran on Stanford’s servers until the available bandwidth was exhausted.
The single starting point for Page’s web crawling exploration of the internet was his own Stanford home page in March 1996. Brin and Page created the PageRank algorithm to translate the backlink data amassed for a certain web page into an indicator of relevance. After looking at BackRub’s output, which for a given URL consisted of a list of backlinks ranked by importance, the team came to the conclusion that PageRank-based search engines would yield better results than current methods (existing search engines at the time essentially ranked results according to how many times the search term appeared on a page).
However, Page appears to have determined by 1997 that the BackRub name simply wasn’t good enough. Koller claims that Page and his Stanford coworkers started brainstorming names for the search engine technology that would convey the sheer volume of data they were indexing.
According to Koller, a Stanford graduate student by the name of Sean Anderson actually came up with the moniker “Google.” During a brainstorming session, Anderson proposed the term “googolplex,” and Page responded with the simpler “googol.” In contrast to googolplex, which is 1 followed by a googol zeros, googol is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes.
Anderson accidentally typed “google.com” into the search bar instead of “googol.com” when checking to see if the domain name was already taken. On September 15, 1997, Page registered the domain name for Brin and himself because he liked that name even more.
From BackRub to Google to Alphabet makes you wonder what’s next.