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What is BackRub?

BackRub was the name of a search engine that was in operation between 1996 and 1997. It was created at a lab at Stanford University, California, and is considered to be the program that preceded Google. The name BackRub refers to the engine’s ability to analyze website backlinks and to use them as the criteria to display search engine results.

History and development

BackRub was designed and developed by Larry Page, a US-based computer science engineer who at the time had just completed his degree at Stanford University. Page was soon joined by Sergey Brin, another Stanford graduate. Both shared an interest in information management and new technologies, and they are credited with developing the search engine that would become Google.

In the mid-1990s, the world wide web was beginning to gather steam as one of the most promising tech developments. The amount of information available online kept growing, but there were only a handful of rudimentary search engines to handle it.

Initially, BackRub intended to be a virtual library based on a principle akin to academic citation but imported into the web. Its founders devised a system that would crawl, classify, organize, and display online information. The challenge was not only to organize growing amounts of information but to display search results in a meaningful way, instead of using directory-based listings or keyword counts, which were the standard method used by other early search engines. Their system’s innovation came from its ability to rank any given web page based on relevancy and the number of links from other web pages.

To achieve this, Page and Brin created a program that analyzed the backlinks of a given web page to determine the website’s importance and how it was related to other online pages. BackRub was coded with a strong mathematical component, where pages with more backlinks were given a higher numerical weight.

Due to the ever-expanding amount of online content, BackRub became too bandwidth-intensive even for the university’s lab servers. In a matter of months after its launch, BackRub had indexed approximately 75 million web pages. Page and Brin realized they needed to develop their program so that it was scalable and could grow along with the world wide web.

In 1998, BackRub’s name was changed to Google (a common misspelling of the mathematical term googol) in allusion to the vast and potentially infinite amount of data that the search engine could analyze and index.

BackRub and SEO

After being rebranded as Google, BackRub became the web’s dominant search engine. As such, the history and development of this engine are closely related to the appearance of SEO as a field of its own.

BackRub’s approach to ranking pages (and in particular to the importance of link structure) was one of the main contributing factors to the development of PageRank, also developed by Page and Brin in 1996. This was one of Google’s ranking algorithms until 2016, and one of the supporting components of modern SEO. PageRank and other Google algorithms that stemmed from BackRub assigned value to the quality and quantity of inbound links, as well as to the number of outbound links. This set the basis for ranking criteria, one of them being backlinks, which remain important today. Links are considered a crucial SEO metric, although their relative importance has decreased due to link spamming practices.

However, the concept is still relevant and nowadays, link building is one of the backbones of SEO, making the most popular websites appear higher in search results, whereas the least popular sites drop to the bottom of result pages.

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