Cross-species DNA sequence comparison is the primary method used to identify functional noncoding elements in human and other large genomes. However, little is known about the relative merits of evolutionarily close and distant sequence comparisons, due to the lack of a universal metric for sequence conservation, and also the paucity of empirically defined benchmark sets of cis-regulatory elements. To address this problem, we developed a general-purpose algorithm (Gumby) that detects slowly-evolving regions in primate, mammalian and more distant comparisons without requiring adjustment of parameters, and ranks conserved elements by P-value using Karlin-Altschul statistics. We benchmarked Gumby predictions against previously identified cis-regulatory elements at diverse genomic loci, and also tested numerous extremely conserved human-rodent sequences for transcriptional enhancer activity using reporter-gene assays in transgenic mice. Human regulatory elements were identified with acceptable sensitivity and specificity by comparison with 1-5 other eutherian mammals or 6 other simian primates. More distant comparisons (marsupial, avian, amphibian and fish) failed to identify many of the empirically defined functional noncoding elements. We derived an intuitive relationship between ancient and recent noncoding sequence conservation from whole genome comparative analysis, which explains some of these findings. Lastly, we determined that, in addition to strength of conservation, genomic location and/or density of surrounding conserved elements must also be considered in selecting candidate enhancers for testing at embryonic time points.