Lies, damn lies, and search engine rankings

I started a related recent post with a quote that seems just as apt here:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
– Mark Twain

If you regularly use just one search engine, as I tend to do, it’s very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security about the quality and relevance of the results.

I was recently reminded of the significant differences that can occur in the results of different search engines. That, in turn, reminded me of tools I’d come across previously to highlight those differences. In particular one that gives a very clear picture of the differences in ranking. After a little digging I found it at (via list of tools at

As a demonstration, here’s a comparison of the top results for +”perl programming” at Google (top) and Yahoo (bottom):

google vs yahoo rankings for perl programming via langreiter.png

and here’s the same for +”python programming”:

google vs yahoo rankings for python programming via langreiter.png

Each dot represents a result url, with the top ranked results on the left. Where a url appears in the top 100 results on both Google and Yahoo then a line is drawn between them to highlight the different rankings. On the site you can hover over the dots to see the corresponding url.

I remember being very surprised when I first saw these kinds of results a few years ago. I’m no less surprised now. If fact more so, as I’d had (naïvely) expected Yahoo and Google to have converged somewhat in their concept of relevancy. At least for top results.

The particular queries I used above are not exceptional. I couldn’t find any query that didn’t have significant differences in rankings. Don’t believe me? Go try it yourself at

That so many of the top 20 from one search engine don’t even appear in the top 100 of the other is… is… well, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. At first sight it seems like a bad thing, but I also have to admit that it’s a good thing. At least in some ways. Diversity is important in any ecosystem.

If you only use one major search engine then you have to accept that you’re getting just one view of the internet. Most of the time you may be happy with that. It’s worth keeping it in mind, though, for those times when you’re struggling to find good results.

One way to avoid the issue is to use a meta search engine that’ll query multiple search engines for you and merge the results. There are lots of them.

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