Index selectivity and index scans

There was a question raised some time back ‘If an index is not selective, will the query operators that use it always be index scans’?

It’s an interesting question and requires a look at what’s going on behind the scenes in order to answer properly..

Short answer: No, not always.

Long answer…


Selectivity is a measure of what portion of the table satisfies a particular query predicate. The Microsoft whitepaper on statistics as used by the query optimiser defines selectivity as follows.

The fraction of rows from the input set of the predicate that satisfy the predicate. More sophisticated selectivity measures are also used to estimate the number of rows produced by joins, DISTINCT, and other operators.

Bart Duncan wrote a nice detailed blog post a while back explaining the difference between density, selectivity and cardinality. In summary, indexes have density, a measure of how unique the left-based column subsets within them are; predicates have selectivity, a measure of what portion of the table they affect; operators have cardinality, a measure of how many rows the operator processes.

Indexes cannot be said to be selective or not, they can only be said to have a high or low density. It is possible for a predicate on a very low density column (unique) to have a very poor selectivity (large percentage of the table affected) Imagine ID > 0 where ID is an int identity column. The column is unique, but the predicate affects the entire table. Low density (which is good), but poor selectivity.

So let’s alter the original question. “If an index has a high density (not very unique, lots of duplicate values), will query operators against it always be index scans rather than index seeks?”

Seek and Scan

Before we go on, I want to quickly look at the main difference between a seek operation and a scan operation.

A seek is an operation which navigates down the index’s b-tree looking for a row or for the start/end of a range of rows. A seek requires a predicate and that predicate must be of the form that can be used as a search argument (SARGable)

A scan is a read of part or all of the leaf level of an index.

High-density indexes

So what exactly is the problem with a high density index? In short, it returns a lot of rows for any predicate filters against it (unless there’s a TOP involved, but let’s ignore those cases here). If the index has a high density (and lets assume for simplicity there’s no data skew here), any predicate using that index automatically has a poor selectivity, it returns a large portion of the table.

If we take as an example a 100 000 row table, with an column called status that has 4 values only, then, assuming that the distribution of those values is equal, a query with a predicate searching for one of those values will read 25000 rows. If we have a nonclustered index on that integer column, it works out that the nonclustered index has 223 pages at the leaf level and is 2 levels deep in total. Given that the four values have equal distribution, an index seek to retrieve the rows for one of those status values will require approximately 57 pages to be read.

Is the index scan better?

The scan will read all the leaf pages, that’s what a scan does (ignoring cases like min, max and top where it can scan and read only part of the index). So if SQL decided to use an index scan because of the high density of the index it will have to read all 100 000 rows on all 223 pages (plus the index root page)

57 pages for the index seek vs 224 pages for the index scan. Looks pretty obvious which is better. To prove that I’m not making things up, let me test this and get actual numbers.

First the setup:

CREATE TABLE TestingIndexSeeks (
   Status INT,
   Filler CHAR(795) DEFAULT ''

INSERT INTO TestingIndexSeeks (Status)
    SELECT TOP (100000) 1 AS Number FROM sys.columns a CROSS JOIN sys.columns b
) sub

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX idx_Testing_Status ON dbo.TestingIndexSeeks (Status)


Then the  test:

SELECT status FROM dbo.TestingIndexSeeks WITH (FORCESEEK) WHERE Status = 3

SELECT status FROM dbo.TestingIndexSeeks WITH (FORCESCAN) WHERE Status = 3

Statistics IO for the two queries:

Table ‘TestingIndexSeeks’. Scan count 1, logical reads 59, physical reads 0.

Table ‘TestingIndexSeeks’. Scan count 1, logical reads 225, physical reads 0.

Yup, index seek is better and the one that the optimiser choses if it is allowed to chose.


High density indexes and the clustered index

So why the confusion around index scans on high density indexes? I suspect it’s because of the way the optimiser handles noncovering indexes where the predicates are not selective. This has nothing to do with the efficiency of the seek or scan operators on the nonclustered index though, it’s got to do with the mechanism used for the key lookup.

If a nonclustered index that SQL could use for a query is not covering, then for each row in that resultset it has to do a lookup back to the cluster/heap for the rest of the columns. Those key (or RID) lookups are expensive operations. If there are too many needed then the optimiser switches to a scan, not of the nonclustered index (it would be pointless, it’s still not covering), but of the clustered index because that at least has all the columns needed for the query (it could also switch to a scan of a different nonclustered index if there is one that’s covering but with columns in the wrong order to be seekable)


In summary, does having a high density nonclustered index result in index scans of that index? No (unless the predicate is not SARGable), however it can result in scans of a different index (probably the cluster) if the index is not covering for a query and that high density index being unused.

1 Comment

  1. mike good

    Well written and informative. Thanks for posting this.


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