Categorize e-mail for better searching

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Say you’re a Mac fan and cooking enthusiast with hundreds of messages about Apple (the company) and hundreds of messages about apples (the fruit). Searching for the word apple might not help you find the message you’re looking for. Your search might also fail if you’re looking for a message that simply contains my favorite fruit or my iMac instead of the search term. In some cases, you can prevent this problem by sorting your messages into topic-specific mailboxes, but even then, messages about more than one topic can pose problems. That’s when it helps to use additional metadata—information about a message that’s not contained in the message itself.

Using Entourage’s Categories: Entourage lets you label messages with one or more user-defined categories. You can then search by category—instead of, or in addition to, narrowing your search by location or message content. Because you’ve created and applied these labels yourself, they’re highly likely to lead you to the messages you want.

Entourage Categories
Make it easy to spot certain messages by defining categories and colors for them in Entourage's Categories window.

To edit Entourage’s list of categories, choose Edit -> Categories -> Edit Categories. Create a new category by clicking on the New button, typing a name, and choosing a color from the pop-up menu. (In message lists, message titles take on the color of the most recently assigned category. To sort a message list by category, choose View -> Arrange By -> Categories.) Double-click on an existing category to rename it, or select it and click on Delete to remove it. To apply categories, select one or more messages and choose the category or categories you want from the Entourage toolbar’s Categories menu or the Edit menu’s Categories submenu. Alternatively, press Command-; (semicolon) to display a list of all your categories, select the ones you want, and click on OK.

After categorizing your messages, you can perform a quick search to find the ones in a certain category. Choose Edit -> Find and click on Everything. Click on the plus-sign (+) icon, choose Category from the Item Contains pop-up menu, and then choose a category name from the pop-up menu beside it. Entourage displays all messages with that category designation.

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Adding Tags to Mail: Apple’s Mail doesn’t offer categorization. However, with the addition of Indev’s $30 MailTags ( ), you can add support not only for user-defined keywords (comparable to categories) but also for project names, due dates, colored labels, and other metadata. MailTags lets you apply all this extra information to both incoming and outgoing messages, and if you store your messages on an IMAP server, you can synchronize the data between two or more Macs running the program.

With MailTags installed, click on the tag icon (circled) to display an extra pane on the side of your Mail messages. Here you can add keywords, due dates, and other metadata.

After you install MailTags, click on the tag-shaped icon in the corner of a message window, or select a message and choose Message ->MailTags -> Tag Message (or press command-control-T), to display a pane in which you can edit all of a message’s metadata details. Once you’ve tagged some messages, use Mail’s built-in search tool to look for metadata. Type a few characters into the search field; a series of buttons will appear just below the toolbar, letting you choose where to search. In addition to existing options (such as Entire Message, From, and Subject), you can now also choose metadata such as Keywords, Project, and Notes.

Tag and Category Tidbits: You’ll find Entourage’s categories or MailTags’ keywords useful only if you get in the habit of tagging every new message that you think you may need to find in the future. I recommend creating a reasonably small list of broad categories or keywords (say, a couple dozen) so you don’t waste time hunting through your list. A message can have more than one category or keyword, so don’t hesitate to apply a few. This may make finding a message easier than if you create a whole new tag for it.

Senior Contributor Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and author of numerous e-books about OS X.

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At a Glance
  • MailTags lets you add searchable tags (similar to keywords or categories) to e-mail messages. It also lets you add notes, set and view priority, and assign due dates to messages.

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