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Currently for several searches I'm ending up with:
Results 901 - 947 of about 218,000,000 for keyword
as the last page on a search with no filter (i.e. &filter=0). Google used to go up to 1000 for every search but now there are variances. I haven't found any that quit before the 900th result. Through researching between "competitive" keywords and "non-competitive" keywords - aswell as "commercial" and "non-commercial" - I haven't found anything to suggest that this only applies to one type of search.
Also, the number doesn't change - i.e. if it shows 901-947 on the first search it shows up to 947 for every search. This of course leads me to believe that whatever it is is permanent, not a rotation/testing/datacentre feature.
My belief is that there is a "pre-search" where Google selects pages out of it's index that respond to the search made, then there is a filtering whereby it selects the "top" 900-1000 and then ranks them against each other. If it cannot find over 900 "top" pages (i.e. old, high PR, good inbounds etc.) then it pulls some pages out of the "2nd best" group, then the "3rd best" and so on until it gets over 900 results to rank against each other. BUT - it still shows the original number of results (e.g. 218,000,000) that it COULD have used.
Basically, instead of the original concept of "sandboxed" and "non-sandboxed" - there are several factors which decide which of several boxes you are put in. This would make sense as it means that the algorithm has to rank out of 900-1000 results instead of 1-10 million. Faster results and better quality. What do you think?