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I'm using SharePoint 2010 Publishing website. Search is inconsistent in that results differ depending on whether search was performed at the top level (from home page) or from a subsite. Is this by design or is there some way to fix this?

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It's by design. Your best bet is to create a search center and use scopes which can be consistent on all of your publishing sites. Be sure to configure your publishing sites to use the search center instead of the ootb search page.

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I fixed the problem by going to Site Settings -> Search Settings (under Site Collection Administration) and selecting "Do not show scopes dropdown, and default to target results page" from the drop down.

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