The Google Alphabet

What happens when you type a single letter — whether accidentally or intentionally — into Google? The Google alphabet shows the first result you get (in English) for each letter.

The obvious question, of course, is “why?”

The page is the work of Nathan Dintenfass, a web developer and blogger. He explains, “On April 9th, 2003 I happened upon a random post on Doc Searls blog where he explained that he accidently typed just the letter “O” into Google and got the O’Reilly web site. I started wondering what came up for all the letters of the alphabet, and I’ve been meaning to play around with the Google Web Services API.

The Google alphabet is the result.

The results are interesting, but not particularly meaningful. It’s hard enough for a search engines to fathom the intent of a single word query. Single letters give virtually no clues for a search engine to process.

What kind of results turn up? Well, “A” is Apple computer’s home page. “M” is 3M’s home page. Other letters yield similar, relatively reasonable results. But other results are bizarre.

For example, “B” returns the home page for B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights. “I” is Yahoo. “X” is Netscape Communications.

“T” returns AT&T, which makes sense, since that letter is the company’s stock symbol. And “W” points to the White House — Google playing a double entrendre given President Bush’s widely used middle initial nickname?

How does Google determine what to return as a “top” result with so little information to work with? “Google’s not really doing anything special,” said Peter Norvig, Director of Search Quality for Google. “When you use it on very common words without a strong meaning, it’s hard to say what comes back.”

Norvig said that the pages have a high PageRank value, and are linked to from other pages with high PageRank values. Many of the results prominently feature a single alphabet character in their titles (e.g. and E! Online).

Another possibility is that the pages are linked to frequently elsewhere on the web in alphabetical indexes or directory pages, associating the pages strongly with a particular letter, Norvig said.

Nearly half of the results point to the home pages of high-tech companies. Add in links to home pages of web-only services, and the majority of sites in the Google alphabet is tech related. This makes sense, given the way Google uses link analysis as a key factor in determining relevance.

“I think the reason the vast majority are tech related speaks to the nature of the Internet, even today,” writes Dintenfass. “The population of people who have web sites on which they can put links and the population of people using the web to get information are both still skewed heavily toward people involved in technology, so the ‘link universe’ is heavily populated with links to technology companies.”

Apart from curiosity and a chance to play with the Google web services API, Dintenfass is also using the Google alphabet as an experiment to see if it can play a role in driving more traffic to his weblog.

Does the Google alphabet change when Google updates its algorithms? Dintenfass’ program updates the list once a day, making this easy to track.

“In general, it stays basically the same from day to day,” he says. “I have noticed a few changes, but not many. I think on the scale of months and years it should yield more “interesting” changes than day to day.”

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication’s search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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