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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Google Homepage FAQ

... or: everything you always wanted to know about the Google homepage but were afraid to ask (or didn’t know was worth asking).

Was the Google homepage ever in Beta?

Yes, it was, though not in the very beginning! The Google homepage was first seen in 1997 at the address Only when it moved to was it labeled Beta. (In software development, the Greek letter Alpha usually indicates a first internal test version, and Beta is the released product which yet needs to be checked for errors by the general public. The terminology first appeared at IBM.)

In 2000, the Beta tag was removed from the Google homepage and replaced by a “TM” trademark indicator instead (Google notes they trademarked terms like “Google,” “Trustrank,” “Google SMS,” “I’m Feeling Lucky,” “Hello,” – for picture instant message services – “Scott Studios” and more, adding that “One of the conditions for all uses is that you can’t mess around with our marks. Only we get to do that.”). The loss of the Beta sign did not mean, however, that the Google homepage would not undergo changes over time.

Does the Google homepage ever show special notices or promotions?

Aside from special logos, the Google homepage sometimes promotes Google products below the search box. Usually, these links appear only for a brief time, and sometimes only in a certain country.

Google also sometimes promotes causes outside their own product spectrum. During the World Aids Day, they even displayed a graphic on the homepage, which (outside the logo and smaller icons) very rarely happens. The Google homepage also dressed up in black once to promote a “Lights Out” campaign for energy conservation.

Sometimes, the homepage also includes special notes, like after natural or human-made disasters. After the London bombings, the Google UK homepage included a black ribbon and text next to it listing a hotline number. The black ribbon graphic, a symbol of grief (and sometimes awareness or protest) was linked to Google News. A black ribbon was also included on Google Spain in March 2004 after the Madrid bombings.

Also, on September 11, 2001, Google displayed a special notice reading “Breaking news: Attacks hit the US”. Below the notice, Google explained that many news sites were down to the high demand, and – utilizing their server farm – they included links to cached versions of news reports. Google says that on that day, “Among the top 200 queries ... news-related searches were 60 times greater than the number of news-related searches conducted the previous day.”

Has the Google homepage inspired any parodies or clones?

When the Google homepage debuted in the late 1990s, its minimalist layout went against the typical web design standards of the day, which were increasingly complex portals. Apparently, the motto for others was “more is more,” and a focus on just search was now a niche (one which Google happily decided to fill, even though the Google founders were originally trying to sell their algorithms to one of the big portals, like Yahoo... and got rejected). According to Google, they even had to add a copyright footer to their homepage because some people figured the page couldn’t have finished loading yet, because it displayed so quickly.

This minimalism on Google’s part might have inspired quite a number of decisions made by web companies later on. For instance, Today Yahoo has a special, trimmed down version of their search engine at The Microsoft effort is rather uncluttered as well.

Google has also inspired quite a few parodies and copycats. There’s Googoth, the gothic Google; Cthuugle, the self-proclaimed HP Lovecraft Engine; elgooG, a backwards Google; a fallen Google; Spam Google, finding spam only; Jewgle, a Jewish search engine; Aloogle to search all things Weird Al Yankovic; Google from the 1960s and from 1407, and more.

Mostly, Google seems to be OK with these parodies (parodies also can’t be attacked as easily under US copyright law, as certain forms of parody are protected). However, they have sued copycats before., an adult search engine, got a letter from Google lawyers in January 2004. For instance, adult search engine got a letter from Google lawyers in January 2004. Today, they show a vastly different, less Google-like design. Briefly during April 1st 2005, Booble even changed to Biible... according to the site’s claim “because sex is just wrong.” (In case you wondered, there was also a, so Google is far from alone in having adult clones!)

The Google logo, too, has received its huge share of parodies.

Are there any magic tricks you can play with the Google homepage?

Yup, there are some tricks related to the Google homepage. For instance, try the following. Go to, enter the following into the search box...

... and hit “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

In another trick, you can make parts of the Google homepage logo disappear.

Who designed the Google logo?

According to some sources, the Google logo was originally created by Sergey Brin using the free image editor Gimp. Later versions of the logo were streamlined though it keeps some of its quirkiness to this day, which goes a long way towards making Google Inc appear less like an evil big corporation.

For some occasions, Google spices up the logo with special designs. This happens during certain holidays (like Halloween or New Years), on the birthdays of some famous people (like Martin Luther King or Picasso), and for some special events (like the 2002 football World Cup, or the Olympics). Sometimes, the logo doodles – many but not all created by Dennis Hwang – also turn into a series spanning several days, as happened with the Dilbert logo (which, by the way, was toned down before it went live as it was considered too risque in its original version).

Sometimes, groups of people even create initiatives to try pressure Google into releasing a logo for a particular occasion... partly with success.

What’s iGoogle? is a variant of that lets you add so-called Google Gadgets, like small tools, games and so on. You can also customize the layout of iGoogle by adding special themes. The service is similar to competing products like or, but utilizes the Google Gadgets framework which has also spread to social network Orkut (via “OpenSocial”), the desktop (via Google Desktop), other websites, Google Maps, and even the Google toolbar.

IGoogle in May 2005 when it was launched

IGoogle was formerly called the Google Personalized Homepage (and “gadgets” were formerly called “modules”), though in fact iGoogle was originally proposed as name for the service. It was then vetoed by the Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as they considered this thing not a product but simply a feature of the Google homepage. When the service became more and more popular though, I guess people at Google realized that “Google Personalized Homepage” was a bit too long for use in blogs, chats, news reports and so on.

Is the Google homepage HTML standards compliant?

No. According to the official World Wide Web Consortium validator, the Google homepage fails validation with 30 errors. It also doesn’t use any document type declaration to begin with. The Google homepage also uses long-deprecated syntax like font tags.

Some have argued that Google uses old-school, invalid HTML to save bandwidth or support older browsers, but tests have shown this may well not be the case. The simpler truth seems to be that many Google departments simply don’t know (or don’t care) about validation and web standards too much. For instance, Google recently released a snippet to be included by users of Google Analytics; a little while later, they had to issue a change asking webmasters to replace the code once again, and some changes were due to the old code not passing validation. You will also often find Google engineers mixing up terminology when they talk about HTML. Also, for instance, iGoogle gadgets are delivered in an inline frame which itself lacks any document type, pushing the gadget HTML – even if the gadget author made their HTML standards-compliant – into a so-called “quirks mode.”

Is there a special mobile version of the Google homepage around?

Yes, there is, and you might be automatically directed to it when accessing – or (the numbers when you type “google” on certain hand phones) – though you can also view it on a desktop browser. Also, a special version of the mobile variant is available for the iPhone. (Though in theory, special mobile versions aren’t needed as HTML was designed to work across different systems... but that’s just the theory.)

Was the Google homepage ever down or has it been hacked? goes down very, very rarely... so rarely, in fact, that many people use it to check if their internet connection is down when they see that another website doesn’t render. Not to say has never been down – it went down in many countries during November 2005, for instance. (Also, other services by Google do happen to be down sometimes. This can get especially bothersome when you include code from these services into your own page. When Google Analytics was originally released, it had outages that took many external sites using the code down with it too.)

As far as hacking goes – well, once got caught by what you might call a social hack. On January 23rd, the German Google homepage was showing the following layout for some time:

What happened was that someone filed a request with web host Goneo asking for ownership of Goneo forwarded this request to German DeNIC, who handles these things, and DeNIC in turn send a message to Google Inc asking if that change was OK. However, Google failed to answer within the set limit of 5 days, which DeNIC treated as a silent confirmation... so the domain ownership was automatically transferred to Goneo. Now, was showing the no-contents-for-this-domain message as above. After Goneo realized what happened, they allowed DeNIC to free the domain... and it was kidnapped once more, this time by a German domain merchant!

How did the Google homepage change over time?

The Google homepage hasn’t changed a lot over the last roughly 10 years, even though small changes have been made... changes which do get noticed more quickly on uncluttered websites. Google started out looking like this in 1997 (if you think their current logo is as weird as it gets, you might want to reconsider!):

In the year 2000, the Google homepage layout goes a bit ugly for a while. The tendency of many web designs is to get more crowded over time unless you actively work to prevent it – e.g. department X wants a link, department Y wants their animated badge, the boss of department Z wants the layout to be more “sexy,” and so on:

In 2003 – ignore the Valentine’s logo in this specific screenshot – the Google homepage had tabs for web search, image search, news search and so on:

The tabs later turned into plain links, and even later, these links moved to the top of the homepage to give us the design as we can see it today – with a search box that is still (and more than ever, thanks to a “universal search” approach by Google) the focus of the page:

(If the layout gets any simpler than that in the future, you’ll probably be talking to the Google Brain [WMV video].)

Does the Google homepage look the same in every country?

The Google homepage changes its language for every country (unless you have another language preference defined in your browser), but they also sometimes change the design. For instance, Google Hong Kong lets users to switch straight to iGoogle via a blue box below the search box... and iGoogle will then be pre-configured with things like YouTube videos, Gmail, Google News and more. Google Korea by default comes in a slighty different, more graphical design, including icons that are animated when you hover over them:

Google was also seen experimenting with a different homepage in China, though that one was never live by default. The default Google China homepage (also accessible via the super-short domain name too contains one difference, though: auto-completion. Usually to get auto-completion for the English homepage you need to visit Google Suggest, but in China, the feature is enabled by default (and also makes it easier to type in Hanyu-Pinyin, which will then be transliterated to Chinese characters). In a nutshell, the design philosophy Google embraces in many Asian countries seems to be “more push, less pull.”

Have people ever created art out of the Google homepage?

Yes. C.S. Bernay has created paintings inspired by the Google design, which were exhibited in Hamburg, Germany, in May 2006. The Japanese artist group Exonemo created a giant painting of the Google homepage. French artist Valéry Grancher also paints Google, in sometimes NSFW fashion (he also painted Yahoo and Wired, among others).

[Image credits: World Aids Day screenshot by Chris MacDonald. Copyediting by Personman.]


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