Outlook Search the Right Way

Finding a specific email in Outlook can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of emails can yield dozens to hundreds of “hits” in an email search.

You need a way to filter through the noise and zone in on exactly what you want.

What you need for this email haystack is a magnet… an email magnet.

Let’s see how we can cut through the noise and quickly find that elusive message.

Microsoft has updated the Search functionality of Office 2019 for Microsoft 365.

The search routines are now faster and easier to initiate by way of the Search Bar being moved to the top of the Outlook window.

The Search Bar has also been moved to the top of Outlook for the Web.

Performing a Search

To initiate a search, click in the Search Bar at the top of the window (or press ALT-Q or CTRL-E) and type your search keywords.

This will open a dropdown where Outlook will offer a few personalized suggestions based on your recent activity.

This by itself does not help any more than it did previously.  We still end up with more results than we care to deal with.

Two Ways to Use Search

We have two primary ways to use the Search tool:

  • Instant Search
  • Advanced Search
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Instant Search

Suppose we’re looking for something that contains the word XelPlus.

We type it in the Search Box and press Enter.

Here’s where we are presented with all the results.

To narrow down the results, look to the top of the screen to see something you may have never noticed, the Search Tab.

With these options, we can refine our search based on many factors, such as:

  • Does the email have an attachment?
  • Is the email from a specific person?
  • When was the email sent?
  • Is the email unread?
  • Is there a specific subject line?
  • Should we include deleted items?
  • Do we search the entire mailbox, just this one folder, or the folders below?

The list goes on and on.

The SCOPE group allows you to refine the search perimeter to be more narrow or broader.

You can search as broadly as multiple mailboxes to as narrowly as a single folder and everything in between.

The default is to search the entire Current Mailbox, but this default can be changed if you find yourself deviating from this setting often.

The “All Outlook Items” will widen the search scope to include other areas of Outlook like Contacts, Tasks, Appointments, etc.

The RESULTS group allows you to include items in the Deleted Items section as well as including older results.

These settings may return more qualifying items than you need, so use these settings with caution.

The REFINE group of controls is where the really cool stuff is located.

The FROM option allows you to type in a name (even your own) to discover any messages from that person with the word “XelPlus” in the message.  Don’t forget, this all started by looking for “XelPlus”.  The FROM feature is reducing that original results list.

If we click HAS ATTACHMENT we reduce the list down further to only emails with attachments.

We may even remember that the word “course” was included in the Subject line.  We can click SUBJECT and add the word “course” to get an even shorter return list.

At this point, we have reduced what was once a “hit” list of hundreds of potential messages down to a list of one message.

Advanced Search

Performing an Advanced Search is not only more efficient but provides more options for filtering.

Instead of sequentially cutting the results down as we did with the Instant Search feature, you can define all the criteria all at once.

To activate the Advanced Search feature,  select the Search Box and click the small down arrowhead at the right.

This will display the Advanced Search dropdown where you can define most of the parameters we discussed earlier.

One of the additional features is ATTACHMENT CONTAINS which allows you to search for keywords within attachments.

If you need an exact phrase match, enclose the text within a set of double-quotes.

Using Additional (i.e., more exotic) Search Option

The bottom-left corner of the Advanced Search dialog box gives us access to many, many, many more options.

Here we can enable additional search fields.

Checking one or more of these options, like the BCC field, will alter the dialog box to display (or hide) the desired feature.

Options and Indexing

As with most Office products, there may be some program options that are worth exploring and possibly changing.

To access Outlook’s program options, select File and then click Options at the bottom.

Next, select the SEARCH category on the left panel of categories.

The RESULTS section has many configurable options that you can set to tailor your search behavior more toward your liking.

Indexing Options

The SOURCES section provides a button to access the Indexing Options.

Indexing helps you get faster search results.

Indexing is not only relevant for Outlook but can be implemented for any search in Windows.

Indexing, generically speaking, is reding through your files and messages, and attachments to create catalogs of where all the data resides.

This way, when you execute a search, Outlook can examine the indexes for the criteria instead of the actual data.

It would be like looking through a hotel registry to see if a person of interest is staying at the hotel, as opposed to knocking on every room door asking if that person resides there.

Unexpected Search Results

If Outlook is not giving you the results you are expecting or not providing any results, it could be a sign of a corrupt index.

Modifying the Index Options

If you click “Indexing Options…” you will open the Indexing Options dialog box.  This reveals the number of items that have been indexed as well as a list of indexed locations.

You want to ensure two things:

  1. Check to make sure that the indexing operation has completed, and
  2. Ensure that Outlook is included in the list of indexed locations.

If Outlook is not listed, click the MODIFY button (lower left) and place a check in the Outlook entry.

In a worst-case scenario, if after validating the indexing options you are still not receiving accurate search results, you may need to rebuild the Search Catalog.

Search Syntax

Now that we understand the technicalities of Outlook Search, let’s cover some basics regarding search syntax.

Prefix Matching

Outlook Search uses what is known as “prefix matching”.

If you were to type in “plus” in the Search Box, it will find messages that contain the letters “p-l-u-s” in that order.

This means that words like “plusses” and “plushie” but not words like “xelplus” or “surplus”.

NOTE: The search is case-insensitive, so “plus”, “PLUS”, and “Plus” will all be located.

Exact Phrase Search

If you need to find an exact match of a single word or a set of words, you need to enclose the search in a set of double-quotes.

“Park” would not return “parking” or “parkway”, and “XelPlus is Amazing” would require those words in that exact order.

Logical Operators

You can include logical operators like AND, OR, and NOT in your search but they must be typed using uppercase letters.

For example, searching for the words “Leila” and “Gharani” would be typed like so.

Leila AND GHARANI

This will return items with both words present, but not necessarily in that order or even together.

If we typed…

Leila OR Gharani

… we will see items returned with either “Leila”, “Gharani” or both words.

If we want to locate items that contain “Leila” but are absent the word “Gharani”, we can enter the following.

Leila NOT Gharani

You can even use comparison operators like greater than (>), less than (<), equal to (=), and not equal to (<>).

An example of this type of search would be…

Messagesize: > 5 MB

…which returns only messages where the size is greater than five megabytes (likely due to file attachments.)

If you put in a search like…

Received > 2/6/2021

… you will see a list of all email messages received after the date of February 6, 2021.

The More You Know

Below is a link to the Microsoft support page where you can learn more about many of the useful and time-saving options.

Learn to narrow your search criteria for better searches in Outlook

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