Search Party

Why does Google still have that “I’m Feeling Lucky” button?

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Image: Escape to Nowhere (2021) by Wes Filer for Real Life.

Since its genesis, Google’s homepage has featured a trinity: Beneath the multicolored logo lies a search form, a search button, and, finally, a button that reads “I’m Feeling Lucky.” The quirky feature transports the user to the top result for a given search term, bypassing the typical index of results. Using the button after typing “Real Life” into Google search, for instance, brings up the music video for Burna Boy and Stormzy’s song of the same name. Those in the throes of an existential crisis, meanwhile, might search “Is there a god?” and land on a conversion page hosted by a large Christian organization. Leaving the search bar blank used to yield a random webpage; now, hovering over the button produces a slot machine-like roll of “I’m” statements (“I’m Feeling Curious,” “I’m Feeling Hungry,” etc.). Clicking through then furnishes a Google-branded Web page at random.

The range of possibilities promised by “I’m Feeling Lucky” harkens to a largely bygone era of internet culture defined by an aleatory, frivolous, and leisurely ethos. At the time of the button’s birth, “going online” was limited to specific domestic and professional terminals. It was a discrete activity that one opted into or didn’t — you’re online or you’re not — and, for many, a hobby.Navigating a smaller and more “human” cyberspace was manageable. It came with a sense of freedom: To “log on” was to choose one’s own adventure, not to be shepherded by shadowy algorithms or bled of one’s personal data. “I’m Feeling Lucky” epitomized this spirit. Rolling the dice, those early users could feel as though fate was on their side.

“I’m Feeling Lucky” is now largely unused. The feature persists as a relic

“I’m Feeling Lucky” is now largely unused. In 2007, Marissa Mayer, then a Google exec, shared that only one percent of Google searches went through the button; internal analysis further estimated that “I’m Feeling Lucky” cost the company more than $100 million in revenue per year because it skipped over ad-filled search pages. And since then, Knowledge Graph, a decade-old Google search feature that provides answers to queries directly on the search page, has further obviated the need to immediately access a top-search result.

Today, the idea of being served a random webpage from the internet’s annals is vaguely menacing (at least, tedious), not serendipitous as it once seemed. It’s possible that many, if not most, Google users have no idea what the button is for, and those who do rarely think about it. The feature persists as a curious relic, or a detail like a mole or tooth gap: a puzzling characteristic that gives an otherwise familiar sight a minor, unassimilable mystique. But it doesn’t seem to do much.

What keeps Google from sunsetting “I’m Feeling Lucky” the same way it minimized “Don’t Be Evil” in its code of conduct? Back in 2007, Mayer argued that Google kept the button around to remind its customer base of the company’s humanity: With “real people” at the helm, Google was a friendly business and not “too much about making money.” If that explanation seemed tenuous in 2007, it has collapsed in the 15 years since, given public awareness of the company’s militaristic proclivities, ravenous surveillance schemes, and white supremacy.

Steven Levy, author of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, explains that Google’s co-founders included “I’m Feeling Lucky” on their webpage in “a startling bid of confidence that implied that, unlike the competition, Google was capable of nailing your request on the first try.” The appearance of whimsical, cybernetic telepathy was a unique selling point that could place the search engine above its alternatives. This power might have initially seemed attractive and benign: Logging on, you ventured intrepidly into your own search and on your own terms. Google was a resource, a tool of which you were the user.

At the time of the button’s birth, those early users could feel as though fate was on their side

But the button always hinted at larger infrastructural aspirations. Google co-founder Larry Page later admitted that “I’m Feeling Lucky” was intended to replace domain name-based navigation on the internet: Users would “go to Google” to visit any homepage, rather than head to a homepage directly. This prophecy has in many ways come to fruition. A cross-referential search algorithm helped Google best its competitors to become a verb; Chrome has dominated its sector; and the void once reserved for typing in a URL on Web browsers can now also be used as a Google search portal.

Google stood as the most-visited domain on the internet until it was dethroned by TikTok in December. The company has also shaped commercial flows in line with its vision, championing data collection — with the endorsement of state-surveillance institutions like In-Q-Tel — as well as advertisements as definitive, seemingly limitless sources of income. Read in this context, “I’m Feeling Lucky” feels less like the user’s declaration, and more like the host’s — a symbol of Google’s belief in its own infallibility, as well as its capacity to remake the internet in its own image.

As Google’s first personal utterance, “I’m Feeling Lucky” was the company’s version of the Biblical “I Am Who I Am”: a declaration of omnipotence. Such audacity finds precedent in the inaugural statements of other Silicon Valley institutions. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, for instance, began with a manifesto declaring that “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Like the Catalog, Google was born in a different tech culture from our own — a different internet than Google in large part created. At the time of its founding, the company’s branding channeled a prevailing sense of leisure and optimism, and a democratic sensibility: The internet, and even its corporate culture, was about converting spectators to participants, outsiders to insiders. That sensibility has long since congealed into something resembling its opposite. Your search is not your own; it’s Google’s.

The internet was about converting outsiders to insiders. That sensibility has long since congealed into something else. Your search is not your own; it’s Google’s

As Google has increasingly become the internet tout court, “I’m Feeling Lucky” has obtained a sinister double meaning: at once a summary of Google’s self-fulfilling ambition, and an artifact that seems to insist one could still share in its optimism. The button’s utility is the company’s, not the user’s, and its value is ultimately manipulative: It conjures a sense of autonomy within Google’s bullpen, hearkening back to a deceptive sense of freedom.

In a 2008 research paper, education librarians at Queen’s University in Canada coined something called the “I’m Feeling Lucky Syndrome,” meaning the belief “that a single query can be answered by a single website.” The button “epitomizes the notion that web searching is easy,” whereas deep thought and skill are required for more sophisticated search. This framework implies that “I’m Feeling Lucky” discourages the messy, productive chaos of self-directed search in favor of a convenient, Google-centric singularity. Now that “logging on” is irrelevant, and the internet is not an alternative zone but an everyday aspect of the world we know, directing our own experience becomes a more sprawling challenge.

The button has an obfuscating function that places it within a long list of techniques for evoking autonomy within control: all manner of “placebo buttons”; the layout of a theme park or department store; complicated privacy settings where users are overwhelmingly likely to choose the default. It reifies autonomy itself, turning it into an external commodity. This strategy, part of the blueprint for digital capitalism, is today writ large in massively popular games and gaming platforms — from Pokémon GO to Roblox — which allow a user the freedom to roam within a world of the game’s making, while siphoning off their labor.

Trading on the sense of wonder these alternative realms promise, evangelists of fully virtual economies have copied the Ur-gamifying “I’m Feeling Lucky” model to justify new singularities. The “metaverse” itself is an illusion of choice in a controlled environment — “I’m Feeling Lucky” in extra dimensions. Like the button, these recent initiatives moralize losing control on the internet as positive, entertaining, and potentially liberating; they suggest that, unlike the disappointment of “web 2.0,” future online settlement will be freer, returning to the frontierist and DIY ethos of the internet’s genesis. But the house always wins.

Adam Willems is a Seattle-based freelance writer and reporter. They write Divine Innovation, a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology.