Hello world: Google search claims 522 million results, serves up 934

Hello world: Google search claims 522 million results, serves up 934

Summary: Bragging about millions of results is a long-standing feature of Google Search, but it has no practical benefits, because it will never, ever show you more than a thousand. It's time for Google's estimates to stop being out by perhaps 99.9999 percent.

TOPICS: Google

Bragging is a long-standing feature of Google's search results, even though it has no practical benefits for users. The fact is, no matter how many results Google claims it has found, it is never ever going to show more than a thousand.

Stat Spotting posted an amusing example today, with a search for the well known geek phrase, Hello world. Google says, with its usual self-importance: "About 522,000,000 results (0.21 seconds)".

Screen grab of Go0ogle search results for hello world

That's impressive, and it might even be true, but the user has no way of knowing. If you adapt the search query to ask for results starting with the thousandth entry, as Stat Spotting suggests, Google simply refuses to display them. It says: 

"Sorry, Google does not serve more than 1000 results for any query. (You asked for results starting from 1000.)

Your search – hello world – did not match any documents."

In this particular case, you can see 934 results, so the listings end on page 94. In other words, Google will only deliver 0.00017 percent of the answers it initially promised. This is not an impressive score. It would be a bit more honest if Google told users something more accurate, such as: "About 522,000,000 results, of which we can show you 0.00017 percent".

Microsoft's Bing, of course, does exactly the same thing, at a more modest level. Search for [hello world] and Bing claims to find 75 million results, but it can only show 802 of them. It leaves you stranded on page 68 with a "Hello Kitty" hit, which suggests that Bing's 75 million claim might be even more spurious than Google's 522 million.

This isn't a new complaint: it's been raised numerous times over the years. Uber-blogger Robert Scoble put it succinctly back in 2006 in a short blog post, Why do search engines lie?

Search engine expert Danny Sullivan has also covered the search result count problem numerous times, and gave it top spot in his list of 25 Things I Hate About Google at Search Engine Land in 2006. He also provided some useful links in a post on Questioning Google's Counts.

Either way, Google can't pretend it doesn't know about the problem. Google's Webmaster Tools site even provides an answer. It says:

"When you perform a search, the results are often displayed with the information: About XXXX results (X seconds).

"Google's calculation of the total number of search results is an estimate. We understand that a ballpark figure is valuable, and by providing an estimate rather than an exact account, we can return quality search results faster."

An estimate? Really? But I'm not sure that it's a very valuable estimate if, for practical purposes, it's 99.99983 percent out.

Screen shot of Bing showing 801-802 of 802 results
The last page of Bing's search showing 801-802 of 802 results

Topic: Google

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • After the first couple pages or so, it really doesn't matter.

    After the first couple pages or so, it really doesn't matter. Usually you'll find what you're looking for in the first 1-2 pages, and beyond 10 or so pages, it just becomes meaningless spam and noise.

    If you can't find it by the 64th or so page - then frankly, you'll never find it. Try a new search term, a new search engine, or another method of looking for whatever you need.
    • That's not the point

      We all know after a couple of pages that results usually becomes meaningless, but why claim millions of results if I can't access them? At least be honest about it, if you limit what I can access, let me know, otherwise let me see it all, the 522,000,000 of them if I wish, it happens I have a few years to waste in front of my computer...
      • google provides a service...and displaying extra results provides no value

        Just because you found x million results doesn't mean it makes sense to offer them all up as an option to view. Behind the scenes the searching functionality would be separate from the output/display functionality. Personally I'd rather google spend time on self-driving cars and rock solid email than to spend even a second of time developing the optimizations that would be required to allow them to store enough temporary information to let you sift through an additional 100,000 pages of results. Because it's completely irrelevant to the purpose of the search service.
      • usability and resources

        My guess is that a lot of those pages are accessible, but you need to specify your intentions a bit more if you want to access them. Just because you want to have the freedom to behave less than logic doesn't mean Google automatically let you. It'll cost them too much.

        If anything I think Google should try harder to get people to input more info about what they are looking for. When Google serve you the message "Sorry, Google does not serve more than 1000 results for any query. (You asked for results starting from 1000.)", maybe they should help you refine your search a bit more than they do?

        By the way, if you manage to stay awake, and you look at one page/second with 10 results it would have taken you 604 days to look through the results.
  • Google gives you options to narrow your search

    You might want to refine your search to the 1000 of most interest to you.

    Or you could bloviate about useless bragging. Of course it's useless to you, if you don't refine your search.
  • I feel like I'm getting baited...

    But seriously? What they are saying, is "we found millions of results...here are the best matches for you." Because they are reasonable. They figure any normal human being isn't going to sift through 1000+ results to find their answer. The whole point of good search is to give you concise answers right up front. All google is doing here is letting you know that they sifting through massive amounts of hits to get you the relevant front page.

    This article comes off as nitpicky and a bit petty. Who cares? If you really want to get hatey on google, why not jump on privacy issues or antitrust concerns or any of the other topics that are relevant right now. Because this topic isn't, and probably never should be anything to be concerned about.
  • The number of results IS useful

    Jack Shoefiled,

    You're point of view on why Google shows it's millions and millions of results is limited. Sure, being able to show how many results there are in under a second is probably bragging, but it's also useful information for users, as it tells the user how well his search terms narrowed the field down to a specific target.

    If I search for a term, and it brings up a billion results, that information will lead me to more clearly specify my specify my search term(s).

    As a business, I might search for something just to see how popular it is, or how many results it matches, which may lead me to use the term on my own page to tap into that popularity, or it might lead me to use a different term so as to differentiate myself from the pack, depending on what my specific goals are.

    Your (and others') complaint that Google doesn't give access to results past the first 1000 may be fair, but that's how Google's product currently works. Don't like it? Don't use it. Perhaps you could make a better search product that gives people access to the billion results related to a given search term, and then the marketshare will fall in your favor as people migrate to a clearly superior product...though I'm not sure who these people are that want to sift through a billion results, but surely they're out there.
    • I wish there was an editing option

      *his or her
      -specify my-