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

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.

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