Sept. 27, 2011 — -- Happy birthday, Google. There will be candles and presents for you at three.
Or maybe there won't.
Mouse your cursor over the Google Doodle on the search engine's home page and you'll see a label: "Google's 13th Birthday." But today is not necessarily the day. Google filed papers on Sept. 4, 1998, establishing itself as a California corporation. The corporate history says Google has sometimes marked Sept. 7, or Sept. 27, and a few years ago it gave up on the specifics and posted a page saying, "Google opened its doors in September 1998. The exact date when we celebrate our birthday has moved around over the years, depending on when people feel like having cake."
Even 1998 may not be so meaningful to the company's history. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two Stanford graduate students who started Google, met in 1995 -- when Page was considering going to Stanford and Brin was assigned to give him a campus tour.
In 1996, they began working together on a search engine called BackRub -- which was successful enough to crash the Stanford computers that hosted it. By Sept. 15, 1997, they had registered the online name "Google" (there's an archived version of their original home page, but you'll find it doesn't work), and in 1998 they began to run it out of the garage of a friend, Susan Wojcicki. Brin would later marry her sister, Anne.
Those were heady days in Silicon Valley, with companies popping up out of nowhere, attracting venture capital even if they had no idea when they would turn a profit. Google insisted on going slowly; it would not start selling stock until 2004.
"We sort of wanted to be profitable much before it was fashionable," said Page in an interview with ABC News in 2002.
"The people who were out there just to get rich quick, those have faded off," said Brin.
Today the company is big enough to be a verb -- you "Google" something if you search for it on the Web (you don't "ExxonMobil" your car when the tank is low, or go "Walmarting" for bargains).
And if you go onto Google.com and search for Google itself, you'll hit news stories about how it's having to defend itself against accusations that it's a monopoly, that it's taking aim at Facebook with its Google+ social network (43 million members so far, up 30 percent this month alone).
Google is a big operation. It would be hard to squeeze all of its 28,000 employees into one room today for cake.