4 Common Mistakes Mac Users Make When Trying To Search For Files

It is common to hear a Mac user complain that the file search function in macOS Finder doesn't find files they know are present. The reason is often that the user has made one of these mistakes. When searching for a file, the search usually starts in the folder in which the user is currently looking. You need to change the scope of your search to look elsewhere as well. By default, searches look in the content of files as well as the file names, but you can narrow your search to only the file names. If you are looking for something other than a file's content or name, you need to start the search differently. Many users search for files using Spotlight, but if you know you want a file, then it is better to search with the Finder.

Video Transcript
You can change the default behavior by going to Finder, Preferences and under Advanced you have When performing a search start in the current folder, the entire Mac, or the previous search scope. So instead of being in the current folder it's wherever you searched last. So you can set it to one of these. But no matter which one you have it set at you're best bet is to go to some sort of top level like your Documents folder or your Home folder and start a search from there just to make sure you cover all your bases.

Now you may also notice when you search for files that you do have the option to search for Name Matches. Because if you notice here in my results I have a file right there that doesn't actually even have the name in the name of the file. This may seem confusing but the term is actually in the content of that file. So when you're doing a regular search you're actually searching file names and the content. That may not be what you want. So when typing you can select Name Matches and now you get only that. A shortcut for that is to type name colon and it automatically does that. If you like typing shortcuts you can do it that way.

But that confuses a lot of people especially if you have files that have lots of words in them. As a game developer I have tons of files with dictionaries in them and things like that and if I search for anything I'm going to come up with all sorts of files that aren't what I'm looking for. So I almost always search by name.

Now another thing you may want to do is to search for something not by name or content at all. But say maybe by date or file size or something. We know that we can do a search and then we can after that search is there, whether you're doing it by name or content or whatever, you can hit the plus button and then do something like, you know, create a date or the kind or file size or whatever. But what if you want to start there. You just want to look for large files for instance. It doesn't seem to be a way to do it. You seem to have to enter something in here.

But all you need to do is use the shortcut. So you can go to File Find or Command F. As soon as you do that, even though you haven't typed anything in there to begin with, you now have the ability to narrow what you've got. So you can do file sizes greater than say a certain amount and narrow down what you've got.

So one last mistake that people make when searching is using Spotlight to search for files. It works. You can do Command space and you could do a Spotlight search and you'll come up with documents here. But you're going to come up with lots of other stuff. All the stuff that comes up is in System Preferences and if you go to Spotlight you can see all these different things that Spotlight looks for.

So when you know you want to find a file it's usually best just to go to the Finder, even if you don't have a Finder window open you can still do Command F and it will open up and new Finder window, and you can start the search, set the scope to whatever it is that you want, and search specifically for files instead of doing it in Spotlight and searching and getting all of this stuff that you don't want.

Comments: 11 Responses to “4 Common Mistakes Mac Users Make When Trying To Search For Files”

    Rich S
    1 week ago

    Thank you, Gary. This is enormously helpful. I’ve been a Mac user for centuries, and it is impossible to remember every aspect of the ins-and-outs. Using the Finder’s greater customizability for searching – as opposed to Spotlight – was a reminder of something I’d forgotten or lost track of. This is something that will be helpful on a daily basis. Greatly appreciated and thanks again!

    Ramon
    1 week ago

    I am one of those who complain that Spotlight takes forever to find anything. The Finder is better when you’re not trying to find text inside files, just titles.

    John Jung
    1 week ago

    thanks for tips. I have had very good search success with Tembo from Houdah software.

    jasper robinson
    6 days ago

    Do you know a way to get Finder to ignore all these unwanted mail mail messages? I thought maybe some of the ‘content’ related search options would work but I’ve not been able to work this out & can’t find any documentation that describes exactly what the terms do. I know about excluding folders from Spotlight but that stop Outlook features like mail -> event from working.

    6 days ago

    jasper: Not sure what you mean. Only Spotlight searches should return email messages, not Finder searches. And you can exclude them from Spotlight like you mentioned. Do you see email messages show up in Finder searches? You mentioned you are using Outlook for email — do you mean the app? If so, then maybe Outlook is storing them as files?

    jasper robinson
    6 days ago

    Sorry-that’s unclear. I’d like to, say, create a SmartSearch folder that searches for recent files/folders. I ask Finder for (CONTENT MODIFIED) IS WITHIN LAST 2 DAYS. This works but I get lots of .olk15event and .olk15message files from Outlook. Is there a Finder criterion that I can add that means “But don’t look in ~/Library”? The two criteria together would then ignore all my Outlook junk and leave only the good files.

    6 days ago

    jasper: Yes. Add the criteria “Document Container” and “is not” for that folder. Or, just make the original location your Documents folder instead of something above that.

    warren dodge
    5 days ago

    Hoping this relates to the post: I am often frustrated with spotlights ability to find emails that I know exist. Any ideas appreciated.

    5 days ago

    Warren: Searching email is tricky. First, try searching in Mail to see if that helps. But also realize that email in most cases (iCloud, Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, IMAP, etc) is on the server. So it isn’t like search files on your Mac. The email server has to be asked to do the search and return the results. In some cases you get cached messages that happen to be on your Mac. But in most cases the server has to dig around and return results. So it takes time and a lot of email services are bad at search. Your Mac can’t find email in some cases because it is actually the server doing the searching, not your Mac. So it really depends on the details.

    Teena
    3 days ago

    Great tips Gary — I’m a long time Mac user who never uses Spotlight. I always use Finder (and choose NAME rather than press Enter, but over the past year Finder doesn’t always find my files. When I go searching manually I mostly find them. I use hyphens in all my file and image names, which never used to be a problem, but now Finder seems to have a plan of its own when searching. Sometimes the results include the hyphenated files and other times it doesn’t. Have you seen this before?

    3 days ago

    Teena: No, most of the time when it doesn’t work it is one of the reasons above. The location mistake is the most common. If you are sure there are errors, I would try rebuilding your Spotlight index.

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