Many of us in the world of search engine optimisation (SEO) devote a lot of time to understanding the inner machinations of Google’s search ranking algorithms, pouncing on and obsessing over every scrap of information about how their systems operate.
After all, if the search engine company were to ever fully spill the beans about how it works, the algorithm would immediately be mined for loopholes and exploits – and so its secrecy is carefully maintained.
However, the company itself is just as fascinating; since its inception in 1996, Google has enjoyed a long and colourful history marked with interesting events and curious happenstances. Today, we’re going to look at six facts about the organisation that are surprising and yet absolutely true – so buckle up!
1. Google used to be called ‘BackRub’
Before the word ‘Google’ was ever coined by the company’s founders at Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin originally had a much less striking name for their service.
Reasoning that its primary function was to analyse ‘backlinks’ for websites across the Internet, they named it ‘BackRub’ (a moniker that lasted for less than a year).
It didn’t take long for the pair to decide that they needed a new name – one that would convey just how much data they handled – and eventually the word ‘googolplex’ was suggested by a graduate student they knew named Sean Anderson.
What’s a googolplex, you might ask? Well, it’s an unimaginably large number. A googol is a 1 followed by a hundred zeroes (1×10100) – and a googolplex is 1 followed by a googol zeroes (1×1010100). To put that into perspective, that’s more zeroes than there are atoms in the observable universe; it’s a number so huge that it’s physically impossible to write it out (you’ll run out of matter to write it on before you run out of zeroes).
Not only is the number hard to wrap your head around, but the word itself is also not especially catchy. The decision was therefore made to go with the shorter ‘googol’, which due to a now-famous misspelling was eventually registered as ‘google.com’ – and the rest is history.
2. They have a T. rex
Say that again?
His name’s Stan, actually.
Dug out of the Hell Creek Formation in 1987, Stan the T. rex can be found guarding the California headquarters of the search engine giant.
He’s one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens ever discovered, although – to let you in on a little secret – if you see him at Google’s offices, you should know that he’s actually a replica (the original fossil skeleton lives at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research).
Fun fact: Although many dinosaur specimens are given friendly nicknames like Stan, Sue or Sophie, this shouldn’t generally be taken as a real indication of gender. It’s very hard to definitively identify the gender of a fossilised dinosaur (it’s possible only in a minority of cases) – so it’s perfectly possible that ‘Stan’ might actually be a lady.
3. Google acquires a new company every week
It’s true – since 2010, Google has acquired other companies at an average rate of at least one per week.
Notable acquisitions have included Keyhole (the company whose mapping technology powers Google Earth), Android, Picasa, YouTube, reCAPTCHA, game developer Owlchemy Labs (whose work is now being incorporated into Google VR), and hundreds of others – most of which are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
To date, Google has only ever divested itself of four of its businesses (Frommers, SketchUp, Boston Dynamics, and Google Radio Automation) – so you know they like to hold onto them, too.
4. Google Mars is a thing
Everybody’s heard of Google Earth, but did you know the company has a version for Mars?
Using material provided by NASA’s Mars Space Flight Facility in Arizona, Google Mars incorporates images and data from the Mars Global Surveyor missions and the 2001 Mars Odyssey (a robotic NASA spacecraft that continues to orbit around the red planet today).
Of course, it hasn’t taken long for UFO cranks to find a use for Google Mars in their theories, with some suggesting that they might have spotted a crashed alien craft on the planet’s surface.
Oh, and Google Moon is also a thing that exists…
5. The search engine has dozens of Easter Eggs
In the context of entertainment media, an ‘Easter Egg’ is a secret feature, reference or other hidden detail put in by the creators for the audience to discover, particularly in videogames and software (the term was invented by Atari in the late 1970s).
Google’s search engine service has a bunch of them. Not all of the ones you’ll find on the many lists around the web still work today, but the ones that do include the following:
- Searching for ‘recursion’ will cause Google to prompt you with the message “did you mean: recursion”, in an infinite loop.
- Searching for ‘is google down’ will return a simple message, “No”.
- ‘Do a barrel roll’ will cause the entire page to spin around in a manner reminiscent of Star Fox.
- Typing in ‘Google in 1998’ on a desktop browser brings back 90’s web design chic in all its terrible glory.
- ‘Minesweeper’ gives you a playable version of the classic game right on the search results page.
- ‘What is the loneliest number’ returns an answer of “1” in Google’s calculator.
- Entering the German version of Monty Python’s ‘funniest joke in the world’ (“Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!“) into Google Translate and attempting to convert it into English produces a joke error message.
There are many others, of course – see Wikipedia for the full list.
6. Gmail launched on April Fools’ Day
Originally kept as a secret even from many of Google’s own internal engineers, Gmail – the company’s email service – was launched as a limited beta on April 1st, 2004.
As it happens, this wasn’t the only notable thing to ever happen to Google on an April Fools’ Day. In 2007, management sent out an internal email stating that staff should be on the lookout for an escaped python on the premises – a message that many employees assumed must be an odd joke, despite its claims to the contrary:
Sent: Sunday, April 01, 2007 10:24 PM
Subject: [Everyone-ny] Pet Snake Missing in NYC office
The timing of this email could not be more awkward. Over the weekend, a pet snake belonging to a Googler was released from its cage in a 4th floor cubicle near the Tech Stop. The snake is a 3-foot long, brown and grey ball python named Kaiser. Ball pythons are nonvenomous and are commonly kept as pets. Our exterminator, with Google’s security team and the snake’s owner are searching for it. Should you see the snake, please do not attempt to touch it or pick it up. Call security immediately.
Tempting as it might be, this is not an April Fool’s joke! We are sending this message to alert you to the situation and to let you know what to do in the event you see the snake. We will send an update to all New York Googlers at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2 and post signs at office entrances. Should you have any particular concerns, please contact your immediate supervisor.
As a reminder, the pets policy of Google New York allows only dogs to be brought into the office by Googlers. Permission must be obtained from management before any other type of animal can be brought onto the premises.
Sure enough, the snake was real – and it took them four days to find it. Royal pythons (as ball pythons are usually known in the UK) aren’t generally dangerous to humans and are kept for their docile nature, but the timing of this event certainly made for an awkward internal comms episode.
Of course, the fullness of time has ultimately shown that they weren’t joking around with Gmail, either – given that the email service now has more than a billion users worldwide.
As an organisation, Google themselves are almost as interesting as the technology behind their secret search algorithms. We like to stay abreast of what they’re up to, because there always seems to be something going on.
The company’s focus on innovation and continually acquiring new technologies makes them difficult to predict. Google’s rise to the top of the tech space has been a long and interesting ride – and there’s no telling what they might decide to launch tomorrow.