Make Spotlight find your kind of files

Spotlight is a great feature in Leopard, one that I use every day. My primary use up until lately has been to launch applications with it; if I don't see the application I want in the Dock bar I simply hit Command-Space and type in the first few letters of the application. Since applications are pushed to the top I can often just hit Return and my application is loading up. Even if the application is in the Dock bar sometimes I'll use Spotlight because it's so quick.

I was working through a fantastic article from Kirk McElhearn in Macworld about finding files fast. He has a bunch of tips on how to make the most of both Spotlight and Finder. It's an excellent read and I highly recommend it.

With a plethora of tips available I realized that I really would not incorporate all of them into my daily usage. There was one tip however that jumped out at me as very helpful.

Using kind: in the search to find that pesky PDF file
Spotlight searches for a great many things; applications, documents, bookmarks, etc. This is both good and bad. Good in that it can find anything, bad in that it shows nearly everything. If you know that you want to find a specific class of file you can specify it using the "kind:" keyword.

As an example I have a PDF file that I've been referencing on and off lately. I don't want to throw it on my desktop and see it every day though, nor do I want to hunt for it in the Finder. Now I simply type "kind:pdf bgc" and the PDF file for the Boys and Girls Club that I need is right there. 

Finding that web site I visited a couple days ago
Another example is when I try to look for a site that I visited recently. I want to scan through my bookmarks history but given the volume of bookmarks that can take time. I was reading a great tutorial on building Ruby on Rails applications but could not remember the title or author's name and I didn't bother to bookmark it at the time. When did I visit that site? Two, three, four days ago? Scanning through my history just took too long.

By firing up Spotlight and entering "kind:history tutorial rails" the page I was looking for was in position 5 on the list. Without the "kind:history" filter I would never have seen it just typing "tutorial rails" into Spotlight. That alone is a huge time saver for me.

There are lots of different kind keywords that you can use. The ones I find valuable are bookmark, history, pdf, email and todo. You can get a complete list from Kirk's article.

Keeping Spotlight current
I mentioned before that Spotlight's index can become corrupt and gave a tip on how to fix it. If I had to pick out a single thing that will drive me away from using Spotlight it's that occasionally files cannot be found in the index and it needs to be rebuilt. Apple really needs to understand why this happens and fix it. I've thought about putting the reindex command into my nightly script but that likely won't help the problem since I don't know what action is corrupting the index in the first place.

On second thought, one thing I have noticed is that my index has become corrupt on my MacBook several times, yet my Mac Pro has not had that issue yet. I wonder if there's a correlation between putting the MacBook to sleep (closing the lid) and reopening it just a few seconds later while it's still writing the disk image? Hell, I'm not sure what could be causing it but something needs to be done by Apple about it.

Maybe it's time I give Quicksilver a second look.


Sean said...

Hey David,

I personally use Quicksilver all of the time. I actually think that I would be literally lost without it.

It is the first application I install on a fresh reformat of OS X, and the first application that launches when I turn on my computer.

I wrote a short article you might find of use - especially being a blogger. This should give you another function of Quicksilver you may not be aware of.

Check it out at

BTW, I don't make it a habit to promote my own posts unless I truly think it will be beneficial.

Take care.

Dave Flory said...

When you check out Quicksilver, check Launch Bar, too. I tried them both and I prefer LB. It's a matter of personal taste.

tzs said...

The second comment here:

has a tip I think you might find useful, for adding a "recent" stack to your dock. It will show the last 10 applications or documents you've used (you can set it to apps or docs).

oingo said...


I have experienced the same frustration with spotlight and re-indexing. I wish too that Apple could get a handle on the problem because Windows Desktop search feels like more complete solution to me in comparison. I seem to be able to enter the "vaguest" amount of information into the Windows search and "poof" the file or email I want shows up. Not so in Spotlight. It has left me somewhat disappointed, even with the improvements in Leopard. I should not need to re-index - Microsoft seems to have the upper hand in this technology.

David Alison said...

@Sean: I spent a lot of yesterday playing with QuickSilver. I've was a bit overwhelmed the last time I looked at it but I'm starting to see a little more promise in it. If I can make it a reliable replacement for what I do in Spotlight (which is not all that much) then I'll see if it's worth building on from there.

@Oingo: I rarely used the Windows desktop search because the indexing process - much like Spotlight's when it has to reindex - takes up so much CPU. I used Google Desktop Search for system wide searches; it seemed much faster. In looking up that URL I saw that Google has a Mac version of it - Anyone here ever use it? said...

when you need to search your browser history a lot may I suggest you have a look at SafariStand. This Safari plugins comes with an option called 'HistoryFlow', which is like CoverFlow for site you visited. Upon opening HistoryFlow, you are presented with thumbnails of all the sites you visited, all searchable of course. And btw, SafariStand is free amazingly enough, considering all the things it can do.

(another user who prefers Launchbar over Quicksilver because it's fast, as in, much faster, and more stabel, as in, much more stable!. :-) ) said...

With regards to Spotlight, do have a look at Leap. Probably the most versatile interface to Spotlight on OS X. It has replaced the Finder for me for most things. The developers are very responsive and very helpful.

David Alison said... Thanks for the tips. You mentioned that Quicksilver has stability problems - anything specific there? I haven't heard of people complaining about it - quite the contrary most of the folks that talk to me about QuickSilver rave about it. If I had a dollar for every time someone on this blog recommended that I get QS I'd have at least $50 right now ;-)

I actually installed it on both my Macs and am trying to use it (for now) to replace my Spotlight usage. So far, so good.

Pecos Bill said...

@David: Yes, problems with the spotlight indexing/corruption must be fixed immediately. I have high expectations for 10.5.3.

Meanwhile, keywords are great, but you don't have to memorize them (unless you want to). Just type the text you want to search on (bgc in your example) then hit the plus button. Change the kind to PDF or Other then type in history. Anything that appears in a File's kind (Get Info) can be searched in the kind: fashion. This works in searches from the Finder as well as the Spotlight menu.

Keep in mind that you can save your searches too. I would think that saving a search that just has kind:history would make for a handy search. By saving it in the sidebar, you can click that search item in the sidebar then type the text in the finder's search oval, and click to search only there. Not as fast as typing it, but if you're like me, you'll forget the keyword by the time you want to use it again.

Paul said...

I've a suggestion of an app! Check out Houdahspot - a great frontend to the Spotlight index.

Advantages that I've discovered so far:-

- The ability to sort results by more than the 3 column limitation built into Spotlight results page (Name, Kind, Last Opened). Now you can search by size (this is very useful, since size is often the best identifier for a lost file).

- A better front-end for search options.

It's pretty cheap. I'm not 100% sure I'm going to buy it, but it's convincing so far. I've set it up to the Option + space hotkey, which means I can quickly draw down a Spotlight-like menu quickly to get into the interface.

Loving the blog David. I see that your traffic is growing and growing (you're getting lots of mentions on MacMegaSite). Glad that I was here near the beginning (I feel like you're a band I discovered before you went mainstream!). Cheers, Paul

David Alison said...

@Paul: Thanks - the traffic has steadily increased. I'm actually trying to back off a little because I'm spending a little TOO much time on the blog and not enough on my core business. I just really enjoy writing in here though so it makes it a little tough.