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Google Inconsistencies

Last updated Oct. 11, 2003.
by Greg R.

Google does not always behave as advertised nor deliver the results expected. This page aims to document both ongoing and short-lived inconsistent search behavior on Google. Contact with reports of any inconsistencies you observe. For more details about how Google works, see the full Google Review.

INCOMPLETE RESULTS: Google, like other search engines, has always given inaccurate numbers (see Counting below). But at least as early as Oct. 1, 2003, some search results would just stop and not give any more listings. For example, a search on game candle gave "Results 1 - 1 of about 321,000." Gary Stock has posted detailed descriptions of the strange phenomena at Google. He has dubbed these GoogleNACK (as in Negative ACKnowledgements). Seth Finkelstein postulates that the malfunction is related to Google's spam defenses. While some of the early examples, like game candle, are fixed, others continue to be problems. As of Oct. 11, 2003, both keyboard bracelet and motorcycle candle fail with "Results 1 - 19 of about 48,600" and "Results 1 - 69 of about 64,000" respectively.
Status: Ongoing

SITE LIMIT FAILURE: A search such as site:www.google.com google should only find pages at Google. Yet with the number of hits set to 100, some records come up from adobe.com, digits.com, osdn.com, and even washington.edu. The search of site:google.com google seems more accurate at least in the top 100 hits, but it pulls in results from directory.google.com, groups.google.com, etc.
Status: Ongoing

PHRASE SEARCH INACCURACIES: Phrase searches do not always work right on Google. Sometimes this is due to Google finding the words within the phrase query in anchor text on pages that link from that anchor text to the page shown as a result. But the words do not necessarily appear in exactly the correct order within the anchor text. See the search on "american medical association" for example, a problem that dates back to at least 2000. Another example from Dec. 22, 2002: A search on "montana mountain ranges" found a page that contained "Montana's Mountain Ranges" but did not contain the exact phrase given.
Status: Ongoing

HIDDEN QUERY TERMS: This can happen with any search engine, but it surprising none the less. Sometimes query words do not show up in some results or in the cache. This can be due to the query word matching a link on another page that points to the URL that is listed on the search results page. At other times it has nothing to due with that. Take for example a search on cameras run on Aug. 16, 2003. The 3rd ranked result was for "Jersey Swimwear, USA" at www.milkduds.com. Neither that page nor the cache copy at Google contain the query word. The cache copy states that "These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: cameras." I then tried a link search on that URL, but none of the pages that were returned used the query term in their link to that URL (and I checked in the cached version rather than the live page). After more digging, the best explanation I could find is that another URL, www.intertain.net/~cameras, redirects to www.milkduds.com, even though Google does not show this. So apparently, Google is matching on words within redirected URLs.
Status: Varies, irregular occurrences

FIELD SEARCHES IN COMBINATION: Field searches on Google have some strange rules. Since at least April 2000, the link: and related: field searches cannot be combined with any other query words. Initially, the search related:searchengineshowdown.com found exactly the same hits as bookmarklets related:searchengineshowdown.com. As of 2003, adding another term makes Google search for the field name as a search term, so the above search is the same as bookmarklets "related searchengineshowdown com" This is especially problematic with link searching since it means that you cannot exclude pages on the same host that link to the site. The field labels that start with "all," (such as allinurl:, allintitle:, and allinanchor:) also cannot be combined with other search terms, or else the additional terms will be searched within that field as well. To combine these field searches with other terms, use inurl:, intitle:, and inanchor: instead.
Status: Ongoing

The one exception is the site: limit which has the opposite rule in that it cannot be used alone and must have another search term. The search site:searchengineshowdown.com results in an error message while site:searchengineshowdown.com +com does work.
Status: Ongoing

INACCURATE OR: Google introduced the OR operator in Oct. 2000, a welcome addition when searching terms with synonyms. Unfortunately, the OR does not always work properly. There have been problems since at least Nov. 2002. One example of the problem reported to me was a search for kabul OR kaboul OR kaboel found less results than just kabul OR kaboul even though it should have found more.
Status: Ongoing

COUNTING: Google can't count accurately. The total number of search results presented is almost always stated as "about" some number that when large is typically a multiple of 1,000 or 10,000. But is even this "about" number anywhere close to reality? We can't see more than 1,000 or so results, so it is hard to be sure, but on small searches, the numbers are often inaccurate. For example, a search (Oct. 2003) on  grapevine durian claimed to find "about 236" records, but when changing the number of results displayed to 100, Google changed the estimate to "about 234." Then, go to the 2nd page of results and turn of the site clustering so that more than two pages per site are displayed (or just add &filter=0 to the URL, and Google jumped back to "about 236." But on the second page of results Google only gives "Results 101 - 152 of about 229."  Sometimes Google drops the "about" modifier on very small searches, but the numbers are still wrong.
Status: Ongoing

FIELD SEARCH COMMANDS FAIL: Since at least May 27, 2003, certain field searches on Google have stopped working. The inurl: and intitle: field searches are not working properly, even though the allinurl: and allintitle: do work. See the Field Searching section of my review for how they are supposed to work. What this means is that you can no longer use Google to search for some words in the title with others in the body. See for example the search intitle:tourism "market research" which finds pages that do not include 'tourism' in the title.
Status: Fixed as of Aug. 16, 2003

MISSING INDEX TERMS: Google may report zero results for some terms even when it has indexed pages that contain those terms. One example reported to me on Feb. 1, 2000 is the term AW870 (a type of speakers). The search resulted in zero hits. However, a search on another speaker, the AW820 found 71 hits, including some that had AW870 in both the displayed summary and the title. Checking the cached version (which is what Google indexed) shows that the term did indeed appear on the page when Google indexed it.
Status: Fixed as of Sept. 2000

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