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Gmail Email Search Secrets
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Gmail Email Search Secrets

Google has made us lazy!

It's search algorithms are so good, and it has so much data to tune its algorithms against (estimated at 100 billion searches per month) that it seems that Google is almost mind-reading what we are after sometimes. And at other times, - not!

Search and the unstructured world!

The thing with search is this - most of the web is made up of what we call 'unstructured' data. Unstructured data means exactly that - messy text written by humans, full of paragraphs, links, and styles of writing of every imaginable type.

This is where Googles' search technology has shone - becoming almost ubiquitous. I mean, when you start inventing new verbs to describe behaviour (googling ... did your google it), we know that search has become part of the fabric of our everyday lives!

Searching in Gmail

So along come Gmail, and most of us, beyond putting files in different folders (labels to be more precise), we use the power of Search to find the right email, assuming (rightly) that that will be good enough.

The beauty of email though, is that it has some structure to it (what we called semi-structured data if you like technical jargon). This means that while the body of the email is unstructured - there are some fields in the email protocol that force some structure into the message so that it can be processed by mail platforms.

Like the from field, for instance. Or the To field. Or the date and subjects lines. And this allows us to do some fancy stuff with search - stuff that most people never realize is sitting there just waiting for them to take advantage of!

The power of advanced search for finding stuff in Gmail

I'm going to show you here a few tricks that you can use to help you be more precise in your search of your archives of email - something that comes in handy the larger your email archives are (I have over 50 000 emails so yeah, this works for me real well! :-p ).

Let's assume I've labelled my expense receipt emails with the label 'expense'. Let's further assume I want to find an expense to do with United (the airline) in June 2012. And let's assume I have 50 000 emails!

Here's how you can use the semi-structured fields to rapidly narrow down the results in Gmail. In the search bar in Gmail you could enter something like:

  • after:2012/05/01 before:2012/07/31 label:expenses United

Does that make sense? It is almost readable to us humans isn't it. In everyday parlance it means:

  • Look for any email between May 1st and July 31st 2012, that has been labeled as an expense and includes the word United anywhere in the message.

The date format is in year/month/day order, and if you have any labels (folders) in your Gmail at all, when you click on that label, that is exactly what Gmail does - it searches for label:term. The United bit on the end narrows the search even further.

There are a whole lot of other sneaky 'operands' that you can use to effectively narrow searches (Gmail has made it easy for you by providing a small drop-down arrow on the search box with some fields that you can fill in). Here are some of the more interesting:

  • is:starred
  • is:spam
  • is:inbox

Well those are self explanatory - narrow down to those emails with those conditions. How about:

  • has:attachement (narrow down to only those emails with attachements)
  • to: (self-explanatory)
  • from: (self-explanatory)
  • subject: (self-explanatory)

There are plenty of other advanced search criteria that you can review. Of course, you won't use them all, but you can get quite creative with how you use the combination of search criterial.

Mind you, it's not as if you will sit there typing in such long queries every time you want to find something but if you do need to do it once, you can save it as a Gmail filter and 'have it do something' (I use these sorts of searches to create filters that automatically attach labels to emails that meet very specific criteria as they come in).

I'd be curious to see how creatively you can use these search secrets of Gmail - so go ahead and share some in the commentary below. I'll share back some of mine - let's see how creatie we can get!

Street Talk

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