Vanity Fair has a wonderful oral history of the internet, full of real gems. About 11,000 words in, we get to Google’s Larry Page:
One of the first things we did was just understand the relative importance of things. It used to be in the early days when you did a search for, say, a university, if you did that on an early search engine like Alta Vista, you would get pages that just said university like three times in the title. It was based on looking at the text of the documents–that was the traditional way of doing it.
We said, Well, given you have all these documents on the Web, why don’t we try to figure out in general which ones are more important than others, and then return those? Even in the very early days when we were at Stanford, you could type “university” into Google, and you actually got the top 10 universities. I think that basic notion really helped us a lot.
So, of course, I typed "university" into Google, wondering where Stanford would come up. And the answer is: 12th. On the first page, the Wikipedia page for "university" comes top; the rest of the page is five UK universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds, Warwick, and Durham); two Canadians (Toronto and Queen’s); and two Australians (Monash and Sydney). Not necessarily most people’s idea of the top 10 univeristies, but an interesting list all the same.
Update: A reader in the US says that when he tries the same thing, he gets an all-US list. Maybe this is a function of the fact I’m in Germany.