Meet the Italian Who Beat Google to Web Search — and Gave It Away
Massimo Marchiori could have been one of the wealthiest Silicon Valley billionaires. Instead, he's a $3,000 per-month computer-science professor and mathematician at University of Padua, Italy.
It was 17 years ago that he showed the world his Internet search engine. Sitting in the audience at an Internet conference in Santa Clara, California, when Marchiori unveiled the breakthrough, was a student, four years younger than the speaker, who listened with rapt attention. That guy was Larry Page, and he hadn't yet invented Google with his Stanford University friend, Sergey Brin.
Marchiori's project was called Hyper Search, a system able to scan the Web with a level of accuracy never seen before. Hyper Search was based on an innovative algorithm many developers consider to be an inspiration for PageRank, Google's magic formula that sorts Web pages by counting the number and quality of links to each from around the Internet. Before Marchiori's project, tools that aimed to bring order to the chaos of cyberspace were classified using textual information and not their "Web-structure," which naturally includes links.
"When I finished my presentation, a gentle boy approached me saying he found it very interesting," Marchiori says in a phone interview.
The boy was Page, who then spent the day with Marchiori, discussing the future of Internet. When it was time to say goodbye, Page told his new Italian friend: "Man, I would like to develop your idea further," according to Marchiori. Page kept his promise.
After the speech, Marchiori returned home in the hopes of realizing his ambitious design. "When I came back to Italy, I asked the university for 20,000 euros to develop a search engine, but instead, they financed a project about the history of copper metallurgy in Italy," he says. Meanwhile, Page got his first $100,000 check from Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim. A spokeswoman for Google in Milan declined to comment.
Marchiori looked for a research job in Italian academia but opted to move to the U.S. instead. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he spent seven years working with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web.
Two years ago, Marchiori began working on a new kind of search engine called Volunia. This was a "social search-based network" designed to share interests and queries using a three-dimensional interface. Search results were delivered as digital maps with buildings, streets and highways, similar to the game SimCity. The most relevant responses were represented, for example, as the tallest skyscrapers. Users who had posted the same question were linked by virtual streets.
Volunia flopped, after a shareholder dispute led to a lawsuit. Marchiori says he retains the patent rights and plans to soon retrieve the source code from a liquidator in Milan. He expects to open-source the project and release it to developers for free. Pieces of Volunia could be useful for devising new algorithms or creating large-scale messaging networks, he says.
Marchiori, now 44, says he isn't jealous of Page's success.
"I am happy to have in some way contributed to Google's birth," he says. "Larry and Sergey have had the immense persistence to transform an idea into an industrial project changing everyone's lives."
Marchiori lives alone in a small apartment close to Venice, where he was born. He drives an 11-year-old car, which he likes to tinker with in his spare time.
"I didn't and don't really care where I live," Marchiori says. "Just give me an Internet connection and, above all, some time to think."