Google as You Know it Was Almost Called 'the Whatbox'

James Logie
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Businesses often spend an unnecessary amount of time trying to come up with the perfect name.

There is some importance in it, but if a company is solid enough — any name will actually do.

The name Google didn’t mean much at first — and still may seem weird — but it’s so established with the company that it doesn’t matter.

We know Google as a giant company, but where did the name come from? What is a Google?

The largest search engine in the world almost went by a few different names.

It was a dorm roommate that introduced a term that would eventually become “Google.”

The book “In the Plex” by Steven Levy, shares some insights into the origins of the trillion-dollar company that changed how the human species would access information.

The Early Days of the Company

In the mid to late 90s, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had been working on a more advanced form of web search.

As the internet was coming into its own, people needed a better way to search it and find relevant results.

The two Stanford students were creating something better than the alternatives.

They called it “BackRub” and it was searching the web to find the user helpful results.

But many people didn’t see any promise in web search — let alone any promise of money.

Search engines like Excite wanted to keep people on Excite. If the search instantly gave people the information they wanted, they would leave the search engine and head over to the other site.

This wouldn’t be good for business. If you had advertising on your search engine, you wanted people to stay there as long as possible.

For a website, this “stickiness” was the most coveted metric at the time.

But it was frustrating users and when it comes to UX: the user is always right.

Building a Better Mouse Trap

Page and Brin weren’t sure how to monetize their search engine yet, but they were providing their users which a much better — and more relevant — experience.

Page and Brin were about to cash in on BackRub as Excite was looking to buy it. This deal would be sunk when Excite realized BackRub was a superior search.

This all went down during a head-to-head “bake-off.”

It was Excite vs. BackRub and BackRub came out on top with quicker — and much more relevant — results when they both conducted the same search.

Because BackRub was too good, Excite didn’t want to buy a product that took people too quickly away from the search engine.

Page and Brin then took their product to multiple companies over the course of 18 months and it was the same story each time: thanks but no thanks.

Page and Brin didn’t realize it at the time, but all of this rejection would lead them to make billions.

Page and Brin believed search engines were the future of the internet and they decided to go out on their own.

But the name BackRub wasn’t the most professional-sounding thing.

What’s in a Name?

It was September 1997, and the name BackRub was out. Page and Brin needed a new name for their search engine that sounded more business-like.

The front runner was “The Whatbox.” Looking back, it’s not the worst name in the world as it’s more descriptive of what the search engine is.

The Google search bar is essentially a true “what box.”

But there was a problem. “The Whatbox sounded too close to “wetbox” and that wasn’t exactly the most family-friendly name in the world…

It was Page’s dorm roommate that suggested they call their search engine “googol.”

Googol is a mathematical term for a number that’s followed by 100 zeros. This is often referred to as a “googolplex” and it’s a word to describe an incredibly large number.

This was perfect, as an incredibly large number was the very essence of their search engine.

The web had exploded, and there were now millions of websites and billions of pages that could be searched.

When you include all the images, documents, and page combinations — you’re dealing with an incredibly large number: like a googol.

Accidentally Becoming Google

They were set on the name “Googol,” but when Page went to register it as their domain, he misspelled the word to “Google.”

This worked out for the best, though. It turns out that “Googol” wasn’t available for an internet address.

Google was, however, as it was a word that didn’t exist. It was perfect. The name Google also looked better, was easy to type, and was still memorable.

There was one last piece of the puzzle: making Google into a logo. Brin was designing the homepage and spelled out the new name with different colors.

The idea was that the logo would look like they made it out of children’s blocks.

They wanted to convey the idea that Google wasn’t too mechanical or serious. It wouldn’t be a bland industrial-like company but was more on the whimsical side.

The first logo for Google actually included an exclamation mark at the end of it, similar to Yahoo! Like Yahoo, Google was to be marketed as “playful and young.”

Final Thoughts

One thing that stands out here is that the name of your company is not all that relevant.

The term Facebook meant nothing outside of Ivy League schools at first, but now it’s a household name.

Many new companies and startups agonize over finding the perfect name to represent their business.

Google is proof that you could use any random name and still find success. Whatbox could have worked — as could any number of random names.

Google meant something to its creators, as they connected it to “googol,” but no one else was really going to know that.

They spent all their time perfecting their product, and the name was the last piece of the puzzle. It seems like many companies take the opposite approach.

If a company is successful, the name will be, too.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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