If you’ve used the internet or a smartphone, chances are high you’ve encountered Google, a successful tech firm that pioneered search engine technology in the late 1990s. But where did it get its weird name? We’ll explore the history behind it.
It’s a Reference to an Astoundingly Huge Number
The Google name originated in 1997 when two Stanford University Ph.D. students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created web search engine technology called PageRank that analyzed the number of links pointing to sites (often called “backlinks”) to determine page ranking results.
Originally, the pair called the technology “Backrub,” as a playful pun on their analysis of backlinks. While looking for a better name with officemate Sean Anderson, someone suggested “googolplex,” and Anderson mistakenly typed in “google.com” while looking to see if the domain name was available. A googol is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. A googolplex is 10 raised by the googol power. (In an alternate version of the story, the trio reportedly encountered a web list of terms for very large numbers and found “google” misspelled near the top.)
So why pick a word that means a huge number as the name of your search engine? According to Google’s 1999 company page, they picked the name because their “goal [was] to make huge quantities of information available to everyone. And it sounds cool and has only six letters.” And since it was a novel name and not just a common word, “Google.com” was available when the yet-to-be-incorporated company registered it in 1997.
In an interesting twist, the word “googol” itself might have been inspired by another kind of “Google.” The mathematical term googol was originally coined in 1920 by Milton Sirotta, the nephew of the mathematician Edward Kasner. In The Hidden History of Coined Words (2021), Ralph Keyes suggests that Sirotta might have been influenced by the popular newspaper comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, first published in 1919.
How Much Is a Googol, Really?
A googol is amusing because it’s an absurdly large number: 10 to the 100th power. Here’s a googol written out without any exponential notation: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
According to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the total number of elementary particles in the observable universe is about 10 to the 80th power, still far short of a googol. And with only 1,880,000,000 websites on the net as of 2021, Google won’t be indexing a googol of websites any time soon—or ever. But it’s still a fun name for an impressive concept and a very impactful internet company.