Top 10 Tips for File Searching

on January 19, 2017

We’ve come to depend on the ability to quickly search for information on the internet. Services like Google and Bing both do a remarkable job providing rich search results that are ranked based on many factors such as current location, past search and browsing history current global, national, and local trends. All of this makes finding what you need on the web easier every day. That’s great for public information that is indexed by search engines, but what about your personal or corporate data?

Large organization typically rely on Information Management (IM) platforms such as SharePoint to help them manage corporate information. With the inclusion of SharePoint online as part of many Office 365 subscriptions, some of the enterprise grade IM functionality has started to be used by small and medium sized businesses. What about data that is not part of any IM strategy initiative such as legacy data personal files? This post provides you with ten tips to help search for files on local and network drives. All of the examples are based on a Windows 10 PC however most of the concepts should be applicable to Windows 7 as well.

1 – Customize the Windows File Explorer Search Interface

The first thing to do is get familiar with the Windows File Explorer interface and customize it enhance searching. You would normally just type your search query into the dialog box. Remember you can search for both file names and file contents in this interface. The image below shows you where you can customize the search interface. If you only make one customization, I recommend that you set the results view to “Details”.

Other items that you might want to customize can be accessed from the options menu.

2 – Optimize Windows Indexing to suit your work habits

Windows can automatically create an index of files based on name and content and store the results to speed up searching. Indexing is on by default. You can turn it off, by stopping the Windows Search Service. You can fine tune indexing on in Control Panel.

I recommend removing index locations that are not relevant for you and adding locations and file types that you commonly work with. For example, I remove Internet Explorer History.

I also use the advanced settings to modify the file types to include file formats that I commonly work with. You can also include file contents if you commonly search for files that contain specific words.

3 – Use descriptive file names

If you have been using computers for a long time you may have been trained to use Short File Names (SFN) following the 8.3 format. Even when Windows 95 introduced the support for long file names many of us continued to use the SFN out of force of habit. Windows 10 support file names up to 260 characters. That’s longer than the 140-character limit of a tweet! Why not use a few more characters and spaces to create meaningful file names that are also easier to search for?

4 – Be proactive and tag your documents appropriately

Even if you aren’t using SharePoint there is no reason that you can’t add some metadata tags to your documents such as categories, subject etc.

This will serve two purposes:

  1. If you ever migrate the document to SharePoint it will be more easily indexed
  2. Some of the searching tips in this list will be able to take advantage of the metadata to provide better search results

You can access the metadata in Office 2016 by clicking on the File tab in the ribbon.

5 – Organize your folder structure

Creating an organized folder structure has several advantages:

  1. You can use the folder structure to navigate to the location that a file is expected to be found in.
  2. Although capable of containing 4 billion files in each folder, file system enumeration and search performance tends to degrade when folders contain large numbers of files. Of course the number of files before any noticeable impact will vary by system, but most systems will face issues somewhere in the thousands of files. As such, creating a folder structure that minimizes the number of folders that contain more than 1000 files can result in faster search performance.

6 – Scope your search

Why look in places that you know you won’t find what you are looking for. You can limit the locations in which your search will look for results. This can speed up the search as well as return fewer, more targeted results. This works very well if you have an organized folder structure

7 – Sort your results

If your search query returns a lot of results, you can sort them to help identify the file you are seeking. Examples include sorting by file name, creation date, file type, etc. In order to sort your results, switch to the details view and then simply click in the field title bar of the field you would like to sort by. You can add additional fields to the view by right clicking the title bar.

8 – Use wildcards

You can use wildcard characters in your search terms. The asterisk “*” and question mark “?”. The “*” can be used to represent zero or more characters in a file name while the “?” represents only one character. Examples:

  1. cat* could return cat, cats, catalogue, catamaran etc.
  2. cat? Could return cats or cate but NOT cat or catamaran

9 – Use advanced operators

You can use advanced operators in your search queries such as boolean operators and properties. Here are some very limited examples of Boolean operators and properties:

  1. “maple NOT leaf” finds instances of “maple” but NOT “leaf” (same as “maple -leaf”)
  2. “maple OR leaf” finds anything with “maple” OR “leaf”
  3. date:>12/31/15 finds files created after 12/31/15
  4. size:1000 finds files larger than 10000 bytes

You can combine wildcards and Boolean operators and properties to create some very complex searches. Experiment with them if at your leisure. A complete discussion of advanced search queries is beyond the scope of this post. For more detailed information on advanced searching operators and properties please visit Microsoft MSDN

10 – Use Cortana

If you are using Windows 10, Cortana can help you rapidly narrow your search results. You can either speak to Cortana if you’ve configured you PC for voice interaction. If you can’t use voice interaction, simply click the at the bottom left hand corner of the screen or on the keyboard and type your query. You can try things like “Word files from July” or “Photos from Barcelona”. There are dozens of things you could ask Cortana. Here’s a link to another article to help you get started.

I hope you found these tips and tricks helpful. Please feel free to share this post with anyone else that might find it useful by clicking the share button below.

If you have any other file searching tips you’d like to share, please let us know.

By Colin Smith

Colin Smith is the Manager of the Microsoft Solutions Practice at Cistel Technology Inc. , a Microsoft Gold Partner headquartered in Ottawa, Canada. Colin is a frequent author and presenter. He is also a dual Microsoft MVP.  He is an MVP for Enterprise Mobility (formerly System Center Configuration Manager) who has been working with the product since SMS version 1.0. He is also a MVP for Windows and Devices for IT.  In 2017 he was awarded the Windows Insider MVP designation as well.  He has over 25 years of experience deploying Microsoft-based solutions for the private and public sector with a focus on mobile, desktop, cloud and data center management.

Colin SmithTop 10 Tips for File Searching