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What's In A (Search Engine's) Name?

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What's a Google? Should you be wary of Inktomi? Here's a look at the origins and meanings of the major search engines' names.

Search engine names fall broadly into three categories. Some, like AlltheWeb and the former Infoseek, are functional names. Others, like Teoma, use words from non-English languages. In the third category are the services with colorful or goofy names.

AlltheWeb took its name from the original mission of its creator, FAST Search and Transfer of Norway -- to provide the most comprehensive index of the world wide web.

AltaVista is Spanish for "high view." The search engine was originally launched in 1995 as a subdomain of Digital Equipment's web site, as www.altavista.digital.com. As AltaVista's popularity soared, most people trying to find it instead landed at the web site of Alta Vista Technology, Incorporated (ATI), which had launched the altavista.com domain in 1994.

After unsuccessfully negotiating with ATI for the rights to the domain name, Digital sued ATI in 1996. In 1998, Digital's new owner Compaq finally dropped the suit and paid $3.3 million to ATI for the altavista.com domain name.

Ask Jeeves The idea behind Jeeves was not to create yet another search engine or directory, but to offer a question-answering service -- a virtual online concierge. Accordingly, the service was named after P.G. Wodehouse's butler character "Jeeves."

Unfortunately, the company neglected to ask Jeeves' creator for permission to use the likeness of the character. A.P. Watt, the literary agent responsible for Wodehouse's estate, had threatened legal action against Ask Jeeves. A settlement was reached in early 2000, though neither side disclosed details.

Google is a variation of "googol," the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros. As Google itself notes, there isn't a googol of anything in the universe. Fortunately for Google's public relations team, the name Google replaced the search engine's earlier moniker, "BackRub."

HotBot is a play on the underlying crawler technology used by major search engines to discover web pages. The earliest crawlers were known as "web robots" or bots, because they were autonomous, automated programs that found their way around the web on their own. HotBot was created by Wired, and the name seemed an appropriate match for the company's hip image.

Inktomi is derived from a Lakota Indian legend about a trickster spider character, known for his ability to defeat larger adversaries through wit and cunning. Another play on crawler technology (crawlers are often called "spiders").

LookSmart is a double entendre, referring both to its selective, editorially compiled directory, and as a complement to users who are savvy enough to "look smart."

Lycos is named for Lycosidae, the Latin name for the wolf spider family. Unlike other spiders that sit passively in their web, wolf spiders are hunters, actively stalking their prey.

Ironically, as Lycos became more "commercialized" in the late 1990s, work on its spider languished, and in December 1999 the search engine began supplementing its index with one provided by FAST. In the autumn of 2001, Lycos abandoned its own spider and began serving results exclusively from FAST, all the while keeping its original name.

While the Open Directory Project is about as bland as you can get, its original name was much more colorful. Initially called NewHoo (or GnuHoo, a tip of the hat toward the open source movement that inspired the directory), it was renamed after the directory was purchased by Netscape, bowing to pressure from Yahoo. Yahoo's attorneys, it seemed, felt the original name was a bit too similar to its own.

These days, the Open Directory is most commonly referred to by its initials, ODP.

Overture changed its name from GoTo on October 8, 2001. "Overture is an introduction, and we feel that's what we do as a company," said GoTo's chief operating officer Jaynie Studenmund at the time. "We also felt it was a sophisticated enough name, in case our products expand," a telling hint of the acquisitions of AlltheWeb and AltaVista in 2003.

GoTo had even earlier origins. Its initial search engine was the World Wide Web Worm, one of the very first web search engines created by University of Colorado professor Oliver McBryan. McBryan sold the technology to Idealab, then parent of GoTo.com in December 1999.

Teoma means "expert" in Gaelic, a reference both to the search engine's ability to analyze the web in terms of local communities, and to the portion of its search results called "Resources: Link collections from experts and enthusiasts."

Yahoo started out as "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web," named after co-founder Jerry Yang. The name Yahoo is an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," but Yang and co-founder David Filo apparently looked up the word in the dictionary, and insist they selected the name because they liked the general definition of a yahoo: "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth." Today, both Yang and Filo maintain the title of "Chief Yahoo."

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