How Google's Autocomplete Was ... Created / Invented / Born

The origin of the service that taps into humanity's collective psyche

Autocomplete was created ... in 2004.
Autocomplete was created ... by Google.
Autocomplete was created ... by a guy named Kevin Gibbs.
Autocomplete was created ... on a bus.

Few things merge technology and philosophy as elegantly as autocomplete. The feature is not merely one of the microinteractions that subtly standardize our experience of the Internet; it's also a kind of meta-interaction -- one that puts the "world" in "World Wide Web." Type in a search query -- or type in, rather, part of a search query -- and you get a textual snapshot of humanity's collective psyche. You see your desires and wonderings and wanderings, measured against the desires and wonderings and wanderings of everyone else who has ever used Google. Sometimes, as a result of all this, you get sadness. Sometimes you get silliness. Sometimes you get poetry. But you always get insight.

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Google poetry, via autcomplete (Google Poetics)

The autocomplete function as we know it today, All Things D's Liz Gannes reports, had humble origins. The thing really was born on a bus -- a Google shuttle bus, to be precise, the kind that ferries Googlers between San Francisco and Mountain View. The kind that comes with built-in wifi. Kevin Gibbs, a Stanford grad and a former IBM engineer, had joined Google in part because he liked the shuttle service that the young company provided its employees. And he liked the 20 percent time, too: the flexibility Google used to offer its engineers to spend a fifth of their time working on projects of special interest to them.

The junior software engineer, it turned out, was interested in URL completion. He wanted to find a way to take advantage of the technological affordances of the time -- big data, JavaScript, the broadening consumer use of high-speed Internet -- to make web navigation more efficient. So Gibbs decided to spend his own 20 percent time working on a URL predictor. As a user typed a URL into a browser -- this was before Google helped to merge the URL and the web search into one interface -- Gibbs's system would analyze Google's enormous corpus of web content, and then autocomplete the options that remained. Type in "theatl--" in Gibbs's system today, say, and Google would complete the thing to "theatlantic.com."

Gibbs showed his new feature to his coworkers. And one of them -- Gibbs now can't recall who -- said, "That's cool, what if you did it for search?"

From there, Gannes reports, Google's internal infrastructure took over. Google's heads of search, including Jeff Dean and Rob Pike, began promoting Gibbs's work within the company. Marissa Mayer helped name the service, favoring "Google Suggest" over Gibbs's name ("Google Complete"). The feature launched on December 10, 2004 -- via a brief blog post -- as part of Google Labs. And from the beginning, both the efficiency and the sociology of the feature were evident. "We've found," Gibbs wrote in that post, that Google Suggest not only makes it easier to type in your favorite searches (let's face it -- we're all a little lazy), but also gives you a playground to explore what others are searching about, and learn about things you haven't dreamt of."

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Google/The Atlantic

Google Suggest would remain an opt-in feature for four more years, until, in 2008, Google made autocomplete the default search mode on both Google.com and the company's mobile apps, maps, and browsers. In 2010, Google expanded the feature to Google Instant. Facebook and many others now incorporate its logic into their own interfaces. We live in a world of autocomplete. We expect to learn about things that we haven't dreamt of. And we expect our computers to do the teaching.

Gibbs, for his part, sees the autocomplete feature he helped bring to life as a kind of technological inevitability. "I'm sure it would have happened if I hadn't done it," he told Gannes. "I think it's one of those history of invention things -- where there was one guy who developed it in Germany and one guy in Russia, and it turns out they were doing it in the same year. I haven't found my guy, but I think it was just an idea that was just so ripe to have happened." Gibbs, once Google Suggest was implemented, moved on to other projects -- and, in 2012, moved on from Google. He is now the co-founder of the mobile productivity startup Quip.

And he is appropriately philosophical about the appropriately philosophical feature he helped bring to life. "I don't feel when I look at a search box that it's something I did," Gibbs says of the service that translates humanity's psyche to the screen. "It feels like this is just how the world's supposed to work."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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