- Amanda Peterson
Amanda Peterson’s job is a combination of professional brainstorming, air-traffic control, and linguistic ballet.
She’s the Head of Naming at Google, which means that the appellation of every product that flies out the company’s doors needs to pass her inspection first. Her exact role on every project depends on the team working on it:
Sometimes people will want her to guide them through full-on strategy sessions, while in other instances she’ll simply verify that a proposed name won’t run into trademark issues, tread on an existing Google product, or mean something dirty in Swahili.
“I work with every character in Alphabet who needs help with names,” she tells Business Insider. “It’s this niche skill-set that’s a resource for everybody.”
Not every name needs to feel like a real name.
If the goal is just to help people find and use a product, the process is straightforward. For example, a cool plug-in or feature for an existing tool, like Gmail, might just be a widget with a purely descriptive label.
But when something needs a name that tells a story, captures a certain personality, or fits into a larger brand, the process can require extensive discussion.
- Amanda Peterson / Slideshare
Each christening also requires a dance between linguistics and legal.
“Every brainstorm that I’ve ever hosted in my entire professional career, if you say, ‘We’re going to name something around “fast,” I bet you I know the first 100 names that everybody is going to come up with,” Peterson says. “And 99 of those are probably already a startup.”
Creative names can require digging deep. Peterson has more than 350 reference books scattered around her desk, including ones for common names of animals, slang from the 20s, and the rules for “Dungeon and Dragons.”
“You don’t know where you’re gonna get inspired,” she says.
For example, the company’s beacon technology, Eddystone, got its name from an old lighthouse that has been rebuilt and reengineered a bunch of times. It stuck because it had meaning on multiple levels (lighthouse = a beacon, this particular lighthouse was long-lasting and innovative), and because it had a techy-but-approachable feel that the team was going for (what’s less intimidating than a dude named Eddy?).
Aside from her affection for ‘Eddystone,’ Peterson is frustratingly tight-lipped when asked for what she considers to be the best names to come out of her two-year stint at Google, insisting that she simultaneously loves them all and doesn’t want to take too much credit.
“I’m definitely the doula in this process, not the parent,” she says. “I’m helping the teams articulate what they want to say. It’s really theirs. It’s about taking what they have and helping inspire them a little more.”
Plus, she adds, you can’t really separate how you feel about the name of a product from the product it describes.
No rank-pull, unless you’re Larry Page
Before coming to Google, Peterson worked on branding and names at small agencies, large agencies, and in-house at tech companies Logitech and HP. But one thing that really sets Google apart she says is how un-hierarchical the process is. She’s working with product people to decide on names, not looping in high-level execs.
At least, most of the time.
- Chris Hondros/Getty Images
One of her most memorable sessions came less than a year after she joined Google, when she wound up presenting a name to CEO Larry Page.
“I ended up having this really personable conversation with Larry about a name he thought was ‘icky,'” she laughs. When she explained the strategy behind the name he still thought it sounded “gross.” What she had imagined would be a 20-minute meeting went on for about an hour.
“He went through every name that I had on my back-up sheet that we had looked at. Instead of glazing over he looked at every single one. And gave us notes on each.”
There were more than 200 names on that particular list, about average and significantly smaller than her Google-record of 9,000 back-up ideas. Page’s attention to detail, deep passion for words, and casual friendliness impressed Peterson. She didn’t feel like she was talking to a mega-rich CEO – just someone who really cared about a product (though she insisted that she wasn’t allowed to tell us which one).
But on the flip side to those considered ruminations, Page isn’t immune to snap judgments. Once, Peterson’s team had had a name locked down for months, and one week before Google’s giant I/O tech conference he heard another suggestion, liked it better, and decreed the swap.
- Amanda Peterson
Lots of tools, few scrabble skills
Besides the flatness of the process, Peterson’s favorite thing about being a “namer” at Google is how many tools she has at her fingertips.
Google has a huge linguistics team working on natural language process that can hook her up with automated sentiment analysis that’s leagues quicker and clearer than her resources at other jobs.
“For the first time in my career I’m innovating what a naming process looks like,” she says. “There are a lot of people who do professional naming, but I think something that makes me unique is I can look at a huge data set and find patterns in it.”
She nailed her interview because she came prepared with a huge architecture tree of every product that Google had publicly announced. She explained how she thought the brand hierarchy worked and even asked about the naming conventions behind a specific algorithm update that her interviewers didn’t even know about. Being on the inside now though, she admits that she definitely reverse-engineered some naming strategies and relationships that didn’t actually exist. Google has a lot of different, unconnected brands, making it notorious for having several products that all do basically the same thing.
Keeping them all straight is no easy task, which is why, on the naming side, the company needs someone like Peterson to have a master list.
Besides knowing the proper nomenclature of every Google product ever, Peterson’s role as a professional namer means she has some special skills, like being a human thesaurus and killing it with weird random pub trivia questions (she’s comparatively terrible at Scrabble because she’s always spotting interesting fake words among her letters).
Oh, and she’s an expert at getting people excited about their ideas.
“With every product, I’m like that is the best name ever. And then for the next product, I’m like no that is the best name ever. I think 9/10 of my job is being paid by enthusiasm,” she says. “Really, choosing a name, at the end, no matter how great the name is, no matter how much research you have on it, it takes a leap.”
Here’s the rationale behind – or what Peterson loves about – some of Google’s names:
“Nougat” — the dessert-themed name of Google’s latest operating system
- Flickr / Marc Fray
Google always names its latest edition of its Android operating system after sweet treats, but this one was a little confusing since people in the US generally say “new-gut,” while people in the UK say “noo-gah.” (Listen to the difference here.)
What’s up with that?
Peterson describes her involvement in that name as “very light,” but she justifies the choice:
“Our operating systems – as much as we make a big deal about them, and have statues about them – they’re pet names,” she says. “Most people see them in writing. The pronunciation difficulty there never gets in the way of understanding.”
Most people will just call it “N” anyway. Plus …
“For people in the US, a ‘nougat’ is a bit more foreign, but it’s a really common dessert in Europe,” she adds. “I think sometimes people look at Google through a US lens without realizing what a big deal it is to make sure that we choose something most people who use our operating system will have had experiences with.”
Allo — Google’s soon-to-be-released, AI-infused messaging app
“Allo is a fun, quick way to communicate so we needed a fun, quick name just in its style,” she says. “It sounds like ‘hello’ – not just in American English, so it’s got a bit of a global nod. But because Allo is a new thing – it’s got pieces of chat, of a digital assistant, of a platform for doing stuff that doesn’t already have a term that people know – it couldn’t just be something straightforward like ‘Google Chat.’ That doesn’t capture everything this could be in the future.”
Plus, “Allo” sounds good with “Duo.”
- Thomson Reuters
“My favorite part about the Allo name is that the team thought ahead to name Allo and Duo together from the start,” she says. (Duo is Google’s Facetime-like video chat app.) “They’re different products that solve different problems, they do live harmoniously together. So the names fit what they each do individually well, but they also sound nice together due to the end rhyme on the O.”
Chrome — Google’s browser
- Flickr/Isaac Bowen
Peterson wasn’t around for the naming of Chrome but it’s one of her favorites.
“From a tech perspective, ‘chrome’ was the literal description of the look and feel of an application. It was the little edge around the border of your music player, or your browser, or whatever,” she says.
“So the goal of Chrome was, ‘Let’s make a browser with less ‘chrome’ on it. And it became this play of, ‘We’ll call it Chrome, haha.’ But what I love about it is if you’re techy it almost feels descriptive.”
Plus, generally, the idea of “chrome” is “shiny and new and sexy,” she says.
Alphabet — the name for Google’s new parent company
- Amanda Peterson
“What I love about the name Alphabet is how Ruth [Porat, CFO] reacts to the alpha-bets part and the creative team can react to the fact that Alphabet is a building block of things that you can write anything out of,” she says.
“You know, everybody reads all their meaning into a simple word. That to me is a great name for meeting what Google is aiming for. Something that everybody can approach but you can add your own little meaning into. That’s what we’re aiming for in the brands we build.”