How Google Began – The Origin Story | A Dream in a Dorm
Twenty-one years since its launch and nineteen years into the 21st Century, Google has now become a verb. From our grandparent’s cheeky, ‘I googled it!’ to the best online marketing agency in London ‘googling it’, Google has seeped deep into the hearts, minds, and consciences of billions of people across all borders and cultures. Alexa actually ranked Google as the ‘most visited website in the world’ in 2017.
Looking at the giant now, it is a surprise to realise that it was simply an idea bouncing within the walls of a university dormitory two decades ago between two young minds. Here is the Google Story in five stages.
I. BRIN AND PAGE – LEGENDS IN THE MAKING
Sergey Brin and Larry Page met in the summer of 1995 at the Stanford University campus. From what we know of Google now, one would think they were always a well-oiled machine but it wasn’t so.
Brin was a second-year grad in the computer science department, but unlike the stereotypical nerd, he was outgoing and gregarious. His vibrant personality led him to spend his extra time volunteering as a sort of student mentor to potential fresh first-year students who were still deciding whether to attend after admission. He led the recruits around campus and took them on tours to San Francisco. Page, who was an engineering major from the University of Michigan, landed in Brin’s group of recruits.
It wasn’t an instant connection. While touring the university campus and the city, the two argued incessantly, mainly debating the value of various approaches to urban planning. Page recalled in an interview with Wire magazine, "Sergey is pretty social; he likes meeting people… I thought he was pretty obnoxious. He had really strong opinions about things, and I guess I did too."
Brin, in response, had said, “Obviously we spent a lot of time talking to each other, so there was something there. We had a kind of bantering thing going." Page and Brin argued but they were two opposing magnetic poles attracting one another.
After their first introduction to each other, Page moved to Stanford a few months later, choosing Terry Winograd (a pioneer in human-computer communication) as his adviser for his doctoral thesis. Page learned a lot from his father, who was a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, and believed his thesis would kick off his academic career. After pondering upon more than ten ideas for his doctoral, he finally selected the still nascent topic of the World Wide Web.
It seems odd in retrospect that Page actually didn't choose that topic to make searching the Web better. In fact, he claims he was attracted majorly to its mathematical characteristics. It was a classic graph structure - each computer represented a node; each link on a Webpage a link between nodes. According to Page, the World Wide Web might have been the biggest graph created by humans and it was growing exponentially. What insights existed in the vertices of the graph was what fascinated Page. With the support of his supervisor, Page delved into the links of the Web.
II. IT WAS BACKRUB BEFORE IT WAS GOOGLE
His entire theory proved to be extremely productive. Page observed that while following links from one page to another was easy, trying to find backlinks was not trivial in the least. Simply said, it meant that looking at a Web page gave no idea of which other pages were linking back to it. Page wanted to find that link and establish which page linked to which.
World Wide Web was created in order to create a better citation system for everyone, especially academics since they are strict about the principles of citing original works. Page and Brin wanted to improve upon the same and make it simpler.
Page called this project of finding backlinks BackRub. He believed that the Web was based on the idea of citation and link are exactly that. In that essence, he reasoned that the Web would become infinitely more valuable if he could find a way of quantifying and qualifying the backlinks.
Remember, this is all happening during a time when the Web already consisted of approximately 10 million documents with an unknown number of links between them. BackRub was an ambitious project in that regard. The computer skills and resources needed to crawl the ginormous content to find links was a beast in itself and more than the bounds of any usual graduate project. One step at a time, Page began to build his crawler.
It was the sheer complexity and the scale of the project that attracted Brin. As a vibrant polymath who had not settled on any thesis topic (since he was jumping from one to the other), he was fascinated with BackRub and the idea behind it. Aside from dealing with the Web and human knowledge, he also claims one of the reasons he got involved was because he liked Larry Page.
III. THE RANK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
It was in the March of 1996 that the first domino fell - Page directed his crawler at only one page, his Stanford University homepage, and set it free. The crawler began working outwards from that point.
The undertaking of crawling the entire Web to find the sum of all its links was huge. Yet, it wasn’t where BackRub's true innovation resided. Inspired by citation analysis in academic publishing, Page realised that the blueprint of the Web's graph would reveal many things. Firstly, who was linking to whom, and secondly, the importance of who linked to whom based on multiple attributes of the site linking actively. He theorised that a raw count of all the links to a page would become eventually useful as a guide to that page's rank. Add to that the fact that each link needed its own ranking. The mathematics of it could get complicated too easily though, especially with all the links and sub-links.
This is where Brin worked his magic and saved the project. The son of a NASA scientist and a University of Maryland math professor, Brin was a recognized math prodigy since a young age. He enrolled at Stanford after graduating and focused his intellectual energies on extracurricular rather than actual course modules.
Working together in sync, Page and Brin gave birth to a ranking system that rewarded links that came from legitimate sources and penalized the ones that did not. Their breakthrough was to create an algorithm, that they called PageRank after Page, which took into account both the total links going to a particular site and the number of links into every linking site. This was created in a way that mirrored the approach of academic citation counting.
IV. PAGERANK – THE PROJECT THAT WORKED
Though the initial project worked, Page and Brin had to correct many number of mathematical culs-de-sac, but the gist was simple. The more popular sites ascended their annotation list; the less popular sites went lower.
As they modified the results, Page and Brin realized that their data had implications for regular Internet searches. In fact, as they mentioned in their WIRED interview, the idea of applying BackRub's ranked page results to search algorithm was so natural that they didn’t even realise they had made such a leap. As it was, their initial project Backrub already executed like a search engine with URLs.
With much excitement, the two students noted that the results from BackRub were superior to those from already existing search engines Excite and AltaVista that only considered text and no other signals. That signal is what we now know as PageRank. In order to test if it worked well within a search application, Page and Brin hacked a BackRub search tool together. Instead of URL, now it searched for just words in the page titles and applied PageRank to sort the results by relevance.
When the results were much more superior to any other search engine, the two knew they were breaking into something much bigger than anything the world had seen.
This newer search engine was not just good, but also intuitive in the sense that it would grow and adapt as the Web grew and changed. Since PageRank worked by analysing links, the bigger the Web became, the better the engine would get. The small student project of two young boys grew into a legend within the campus offices and computer science department. In the fall of 1996, BackRub regularly brought down Stanford's Internet connection. There was one incident where the BackRub crawler ate up almost half of Stanford University's network bandwidth, which was extraordinary because Stanford was one of the best-networked institutions on the planet.
V. GOOGLE IS BORN, HISTORY IS MADE
Brin and Page continued experimenting. Their office was Room 360 in the CS Building that they shared with a few other graduate students. BackRub was already creating a buzz on both the campus and within the world of academic Web research.
It was in 1997 that things took shape as we recognise them in the present day. A Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg took an interest in PageRank and travelled to the Stanford campus to meet with Page, encouraging him to publish. Page was doubtful for two reasons – his father had passed away and he felt unsure if someone would steal his idea.
However, over the course of weeks, Page and Brin realised they wanted to start a company, Page especially as a tribute to his father. As recalled by them, they were simply sitting in the office one day, going back and forth about the names, when someone suggested “googolplex”. Page made it “googol”, which refers to a huge number, and checked the available domain.
Google.com was available.
Rest is history.
Next: How Google Became the #1 Search Engine