Search and ye shall find (maybe): Apple's Spotlight needs an overhaul

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When I backed up my home folder recently, my backup software showed that it contained 191,644 files. With a haystack that large, it can be difficult to find specific files: As an example, the other day I wanted to find an article I wrote about Spotlight, back when Apple last made a significant update to the feature.

Though I did eventually find the article, my success wasn’t due to Spotlight. (I’ll talk about what I used to find it later.) Because I didn’t know what keywords to look for, other than “Spotlight,” I got hundreds of results, and it took me a while to sift through them. The Spotlight menu offered me what it considered the most relevant results, but I had to choose Show All in Finder to discover that the search query had produced 431 matches. Though you can sort search results in the Finder by criteria such as kind and date, the sheer number of matches means that finding the right file often takes a bit of scrolling and Quick-Looking.

Spotlight was quite impressive when it debuted as part of Mac OS X 10.4. Since then, however, the feature has seen few enhancements, and Apple has removed some useful functionality.

Wheat, meet chaff

Spotlight searches provide lots of results. But how to find the right one…?

With so many files on our computers, having an efficient way to find the ones we need is crucial. I keep files in folders, and I can usually remember that I wrote, say, an article about iTunes a few months ago, and track it down. But to locate older files, users often need more help.

Spotlight fits the bill for many searches, but it usually returns too many results. Back in the day, Tiger offered both a Spotlight menu and a Spotlight window, the latter permitting quick filtering of files by kind, date, location on your Mac, and so on.

In Tiger, the Spotlight window let you quickly filter and sort search results, but Leopard did away with the feature.

Unfortunately Apple ditched the Spotlight window with Leopard, and Spotlight itself has fallen by the wayside. None of the “200+ New Features” in Mountain Lion mention any enhancement to Spotlight. Instead of working with the straightforward point-and-click interface of the Spotlight window, users must enter complex search queries to try to unearth elusive files. The Finder does allow some filtering by additional criteria, but that approach is often complex and confusing.

In many ways, Spotlight has become ungainly, larded with features tangentially related to search that seem to reduce its effectiveness at what used to be its raison d’être: It can launch applications (though many launcher utilities are more powerful); you can use it to find dictionary definitions; and you can even use it to perform calculations. But when handling the core task of searching for files, it often seems to toss up results at random. It’s unclear whether results appear high in the queue of matches because Spotlight deems them especially relevant or simply because they were recently created or opened; often, looking at the top results of a search makes me scratch my head.

The golden goal

It’s time for Apple to provide a simpler, better way to find files. Instead of letting Spotlight languish, the company should rebuild the feature, harnessing more of the search technologies that we’ve come to expect over the eight years since it debuted.

Users have gotten savvier about search in the past decade—who doesn’t use Google to find things on the Web these days? But even though search may be Google’s special talent, that doesn’t mean that Apple shouldn’t attempt to take a page from Mountain View’s playbook. As any Google user knows, generating hundreds of hits doesn't do you much good when you’re searching for one particular thing. All you care about is finding the right results. For Apple, focusing on delivering those results should be the most important part of the equation.

Simpler is better, too: Instead of requiring users to type kind:word when searching for a Word document, let them click entries in a list to select different document types, as they could in Tiger’s Spotlight window. Most users probably aren’t even aware of this arcane search syntax; though OS X’s help does identify some of the keywords, it omits many others (for example, kind:word and kind:excel are not there).

Third-party software already provides capabilities of these types. In fact, I eventually found my old Spotlight article by using Houdah Software’s $15 Tembo. Based on the older Spotlight window, Tembo offers users the ability to sort by file type, location, date, and more. Tembo is a good utility, certainly, but its functionality, which was present in Spotlight’s early days, should be an integral part of OS X.

Tembo brings back Spotlight’s missing window, which lets you sort results and find the files you want more easily.

Apple could even go further and offer a natural-language search feature. In this scenario, I’d type something like where’s my last Macworld article about Spotlight?, and Spotlight would know enough not to show me less relevant hits like sitemap.xml in my search results.

Perhaps a feature of this sort will surface in OS X 10.9.Rumor has it that we might see the addition of Apple’s Siri virtual assistant feature. I’d like to tell my Mac, “Find the file with my iTunes 11 review,” and have a Finder window open showing that file. In this day and age, having to use obscure keyword syntax to initiate a search should be a thing of the past.

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