3.1.3 Searching Algorithms

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1 Searching Algorithms

Learn It: What are Searching Algorithms?

Searching Algorithms are used to determine whether a specific piece of data exists within
a data structure.
If it does exist, a search algorithm will locate it and retrieve the information.
  • Thousands of software applications, including databases or commercial search engines such as Google, depend on the ability to quickly search through huge amounts of data to find a particular item.
  • There are many different types of searching algorithms. We will look at two well-known algorithms for searching and sorting: Linear and Binary search algorithms.


  • Searching and Sorting Algorithms are used in lots of programs to make data easier to access and understand.
  • Computer game leader boards are sorted from the highest score to the lowest score to make it easy to find the winner and your position in the list.
  • Search engines like Google use special algorithms to help us find the most useful search results.
  • Online shopping websites order their products by type, so that you can click straight to the department that you're looking for, rather than searching through the whole site.
Question - Can you think of other online companies that store huge amounts of data,
which often requires you to search through so that you can find a particular item quickly?

2 Linear Searching Algorithms

Learn It: What is a Linear Search?

Linear Search - A search algorithm that begins at one end of a data structure, checking each
data item in turn until the required item is found, or the end of the structure is reached.
  • When the data is unsorted, the only sensible option when searching for a particular item is to use a Linear Search.
  • Linear Searches start at the beginning and sequentially look at each item in a list until you find the one you are looking for or until all of the items have been searched.
  • You could be lucky and quickly find the item at the beginning of the list, or it could be at the end.
  • Linear Searches are relatively simple, but they are inefficient when searching through long lists.

Linear and Binary Searching Algorithms Explained

Linear Search Example linear_search.gif Here is an algorithm for a Linear Search


Badge It: Linear Search Algorithm

Silver: Complete the Linear Search Algorithm shown in the Trinket window below:

  • Upload to Algorithms - Searching Algorithms: Silver on BourneToLearn

3 Binary Searching Algorithms

Learn It: What is a Binary Search?

Binary Search - A search algorithm that begins in the middle of a data structure,
eliminating half of the remaining data with each pass.
Binary searches are only appropriate when the data to be search is sorted.
  • When the data is sorted,(i.e. in numerical or alphabetical order), you can use a much more efficient algorithm called a Binary Search.
  • It works by repeatedly dividing in half the portion of the data list that could contain the required data item.
  • This is continued until there is only one item in the list you are examining.
  • Binary Searches are quicker because, at each stage, half of the remaining data is disregarded.
  • If a list of one million elements were to be searched using a binary search, it would take no more than 20 iterations to find a particular piece of data or discover that the data is not in the list.
  • A list of one billion items would only require 30 iterations.
  • A binary search is more efficient than a linear search since it will, on average, find a search items more quickly than a linear search. However, binary searches do not work on unsorted data, so efficiency is not the only consideration.

Binary Search Example binary_search.gif

Example 1 - Uneven List Binary Search

  • Consider the following ordered list of 15 items. We want to find out whether the number 51 is in the list.


  • Step 1: The middle term is 44; therefore, we can discard all data items less than or equal to 44.


  • Step 2: The middle term is 62, so we can discard all data items greater than or equal to 62.


  • Step 3: The middle term is 51 – So we have found the data item.

  • Note: That if there are an even number of items in the list, for example 8 items, the fourth, not the fifth item is taken to be the middle item.

Example 2 - Even List Binary Search

  • Consider the following list of 10 items. We want to find out whether the number 50 is in the list of items.


  • Step 1: The fifth number in the list is taken to be the middle number - we can therefore discard all data items less than or equal to 37.


  • Step 2: The third number in the list is now the middle number - we can therefore discard all data items less than or equal to 43.


  • Step 3: As there are now only two numbers left in the list, when split 48 becomes the middle number. Once we discard 48 we are left with the number 50.
In an even list, the number left of the central split is taken to be the middle number.

Here is an algorithm for a Binary Search


4 Comparing Linear and Binary Searching Algorithms

Learn It: Pro's and Con's of each search?

Linear Vs Binary Search Algorithms

Linear Search Binary Search
+ Works with unsorted lists + Far more efficient
- Slower than a binary search - Will not work on unsorted lists
The linear search algorithm is fine for small lists, but very inefficient for large lists.
The average time taken to search a thoussand items would be 100 times longer than the time
taken to search 10 items.
If you had to search a database of 10 million car registrations to find who owns a certain
car, it would take a very long time.
In contrast, the binary search algorithm is extremely efficient. Each time an item is
examined, if it is not the correct item, half of the list is discarded.
In a list of 10 million items, only 24 items would need to be examined. That's because
10,000,000 is less than 2^24.
In general, if there are fewer than 2^n items (but at least 2^n-1), the maximum number
of items to be examined is n.
A key benefit of the linear search is that it can be done on an unsorted list - The items
do not have to be in sequence.
If items are frequently added or deleted from a list, this would save the extra work
needed to keep the list in sequence in order to perform a binary search.

Badge It: Exam Questions

Gold: Answer the following questions:

  1. A programmer wants to implement a search algorithm to be used with small lists [4,6,8,12,15,16,21].
    • Explain how a linear search would search for the integer '15'.
  2. What property of this list [4,6,8,12,15,21], means the programmer could use a binary search algorithm?
  3. The programmer knows that a binary search algorithm is more efficient than a linear search algorithm.
    • Explain why the efficiency of these two algorithms in not an important factor when choosing what algorithm to implement for the list shown above?
  4. Upload to Algorithms - Efficiency: Gold on BourneToLearn

Badge It: Binary Search Algorithm

Platinum: Look at the Pseudocode for a Binary Search shown in the Trinket below:

  1. Using the Pseudocode, create a Python program function.
  2. Add a binary list of fifteen integer numbers and ask the user to input a value to search for.
  3. Output a message to say that the value is found or not in the list.
  • Upload to Algorithms - Searching Algorithms: Platinum on BourneToLearn