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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Early Yahoo and Google (and Brian Lent)

Richard Brandt in his Stanford Magazine article from 2004 – “Net Assets: How Stanford’s computer science department changed the way we get information” – describes how Brian Lent, PhD student at Stanford in the 1990s (and today CEO of, kind of missed out on both the early Yahoo and the early Google... even when he was around both projects.

First, Brian saw Yahoo come about:

The first Stanford students to make a commercial success out of helping people find things on the Internet were David Filo and Jerry Yang, who started Yahoo! The venture was never a true search engine-a software program that pulls up web pages relevant to keywords the user types. Rather, it started simply as a hand-selected list of interesting websites called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” It evolved into “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” or Yahoo!, a portal offering hand-selected sites and free software deemed useful by Yahoo’s “domain” experts-the equivalent of Callimachus’s bibliography. To find other web pages, Yahoo! offered search engines licensed from other companies. (...)

As part of their Stanford doctoral course work, Filo, MS ’90, and Yang, ’90, MS ’90, wrote a business plan based on their web guide. Students had to evaluate each other’s plans, and Brian Lent, a PhD student in the database group, gave Yahoo! a D-minus. Lent, MS ’95, thought the selection process should be automated, rather than hiring scores of experts to find the right sites as the web grew. (...)

When Filo asked Lent if he would like to join Yahoo! as employee No. 1, in order to keep the founders on their toes with his skepticism, he laughed. “You couldn’t pay me enough money to work for a company called Yahoo!” he recalls saying at the time.

Yahoo went on to become hugely popular. Brian was partly right though about the upcoming need for an automated selection process to wade through the information contained on the web. Later, he was around when Google made its baby steps:

[Professor Hector Garcia-Molina, chair of computer science], [later Google co-founder Larry] Page’s adviser, recalls how it all started. Page came into his office one day in 1995 to show him a neat trick he had discovered. The AltaVista search engine not only collected keywords from sites, but also could show what other sites linked to them. AltaVista did not exploit this link information in the way Google would, but Page suggested it would be a good way to rank sites. (...) He began creating his own software for analyzing links between sites.

Meanwhile Lent (...) had been working with [Sergey Brin] on a research project within the database group. In 1995, they decided to try a little associative data mining. This is the process of finding pieces of information that commonly occur together. Retailers use it to search through their sales records and determine whether different items are frequently bought at the same time by customers. (They then can place those products as far apart as possible in the store, hoping to lure customers into additional purchases.)

Brin and Lent worked on ways to find specific word combinations that often occurred together on the Internet, such as authors and their book titles. This required searching through masses of web data, so Brin wrote a “crawler” program (...)

He intended to call the crawler ["Googol"]. (...) Lent recalls, they did not realize they were spelling the word incorrectly.

Later, Page combined his method of analyzing “back” links pointing to a given website with Brin’s web crawler (...)

Lent, who had a tendency to wander back and forth between university research and corporate life, did not stick around to work with Page and Brin, a decision he confesses he regrets. But in early 1996, Lent explains, “We all said, ’There will never be another Yahoo!’”

[Thanks Hervé! Image based on photo from]


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