Apple's Spotlight: keywords are so '90s

Apple's Spotlight: keywords are so '90s

Summary: Is Vista any better?With massive storage comes massive, unstructured data: needle in a cybernetic haystack.

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TOPICS: Browser
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Is Vista any better? With massive storage comes massive, unstructured data: needle in a cybernetic haystack. Search technology is the limiting factor for human access of massive data.

Keyword search works if there aren't too many words Personally, the whole keyword search thing is losing its charm, not to mention utility, as there are more and more things I know are out there - or on my 120 GB notebook drive - that I can't find with any of the half dozen keyword-based search tools I commonly use. Today, it's about just one of them.

The search function on Mac OS X is called Spotlight. It is supposed to create a index of every word of every document so you can quickly find content - .doc files, pdf's, mail messages, applications, presentations, even images - just by typing a keyword.

Except it is a real disappointment.

First, the whole "it just works" thing got left out I buy software on line and from sad experience know it is wise to keep all registration info in one place. A text file created with Apple's TextEdit named "Serial Numbers Software" keeps it all together. When I type "serial" into spotlight, that file never shows up, even after scrolling through the 362 files it does find. A Word doc with serial in the name does. If it weren't so irritating it would be spooky.

The UI needs work What is so hard about a text box? Type in the word, hit return. But Spotlight starts searching with the first letter and the UI gets distracting as new results appear with each new letter. Useless, showy virtuosity.

Slow learner Spotlight gives equal weight to a word no matter if it is buried deep within the file or is in the name. So instead of thinking of my keywords, I have think of a word within the document unique enough to narrow down the search. Who is supposed to be helping who?

Nor does it keep track of favorites, or recently opened files, even though it has all the metadata. I use the excellent freeware EasyFind utility from Devontechnologies to actually find files. Now if they'd just stick it on the menubar!

Cutting edge or cranky? Cranky for sure. I spend hours on the web each day, writing and researching (as I should be right now). For a recent project I've collected about 100 pdf's, many with titles like 5056004309.pdf so, searching within documents is undeniably helpful. What I've realized though is that keyword searches aren't enough.

The Storage Bits take Search is the biggest problem in a world of unstructured storage, especially personal storage. Google's Page Rank algorithm seems smart because it harnesses the judgments of people to create better search results. But no one is linking to my software serial numbers file, so Page Rank is no help.

My laptop today has 100x more RAM than the drive of my laptop of 10 years ago and 6000x more disk. I'm lucky if I'm 1x as smart. Run the numbers forward 10 years to roughly 500 GB RAM and 30 TB of disk. Some smart grad student has a bright future if they can fix this one.

I know help is on the way, with improvements to Spotlight planned for Mac OS 10.5 this October. Yet I suspect I live a more search and data intensive life than most people today, so I'm seeing the problem sooner.

Comments welcome: what works for you? Vista users, feel free to give your 30 second take on how the search function works vs Spotlight.

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39 comments
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  • It helps to be more specific in the search

    I use 10.3.9 so Find isn?t called Spotlight, but Find works about the same. The more specific you can be in the search, the more reliable. If you save your work with extensions (a lot of mac apps allow you to not add the extension) and then add a parameter in the Find window ? ?extension is? and added ?txt? to ?serial? you narrow that search down. The more parameters the narrower the result. You spend a tiny bit of extra time starting the search ? but save a humongous amount of time sifting the results.

    If you?re a pretty rigourous filer (saving things into appropriate folders and subfolder, you can use ?Search In ? Specific Places? in find and the Use the Add to add specific folder to look in. Most of my files are saved into and ?Accounts? folder in my Doccuments folder. Each account has its own folder and then main subfolders set by year and month (in reverse order so the latest work is first). Thse are added to Find in specific places. So it I want a Word doc that was done for XYZ Corp, I don?t waste time searching for other things that were NOT done for XYZ.

    No matter what, you still have to be careful in filing docs in your hard drive ? just like the days of file cabinets. People have a tendency to do a lot on their computer, but not to be careful in filing ? something that usually takes seconds.

    By the way, here?s an easy trick to finding stuff. Drag you documents folder to the Dock (right side or bottom). Right click, Control click, or Click and hold and your whole folder ? with all subfolders ops up and you just follow. If you file carefully, this allows you to find things super fast ? Without Find. In my case, I have aliases of other folders in the Dock ? making things faster to find.
    j.m.galvin
  • Spotlight needs work

    I agree, there's much work needed for Spotlight, especially in the UI department, but
    let's see what Leopard has to offer. If rumors of the inclusion of ZFS are true, then we
    could be on the brink of something really exciting for both search and backup
    technology.

    But, I personally was never wowed or enamored by Spotlight. I use it very rarely. To
    me, the killer search and organizing app has always been the Finder. Nothing will
    ever beat knowing where you put things.
    Len Rooney
    • Spotlight

      Spotlight finds too much for me at times. (Though it's where I start). find or grep
      from the Terminal really comes in handy as Plans B or C.
      DannyO_0x98
      • What drives me nuts

        Is when Spotlight finds what I want almost instantly, but you can't click on it
        because the window is still filling with new items above, so your item gets pushed
        downward out of the window. Then you have to go scrolling for it. A minor
        annoyance, but an annoyance all the same.

        I find the finder window searches much more useful because you can select which
        directory or volume to search, but I still wish there were more display options for
        results--perhaps columns so that each can fill at it's own pace without hiding
        documents listed below.

        Thankfully, we do have the Spotlight control panel, so I definitely set that to
        ignore music files, fonts, and other stuff I seldom if ever search for. That really
        speeds things up. You can also drag the type of items up and down the list to
        prioritize the results display.

        They've got the super fast search, but now it's time to find better ways of
        presenting the results.
        Len Rooney
    • Command-f

      In a Finder Window is much more useful. Spotlight just serves as window decoration
      in my menu bar.
      frgough
    • I disagree

      I use Spotlight several times daily on my home and work computers and it always
      finds what I'm looking for easily and painlessly. The find-while-you-type thing can
      be a little annoyance at times but never a big enough one to complain about. I love
      how it finds info in emails without having to open my email program.

      Does anyone remember what search was like pre-Spotlight when we were limited to
      file names and manually added metatags? Spotlight is great!
      dolph0291
  • The difference between keywords and full-content search

    In Windows Vista (and Windows Desktop Search, and even going back to the Indexing Service that shipped for NT4 in 1997), a file's "keywords" are not the same as its "content". Keywords are added manually by the user (or software), and presumably when generating results, keyword matches are given a heavier weighting than content matches.
    PB_z
  • Vista does somewhat better

    Robin:

    In your article, you said, regarding Spotlight's search (in)ability:

    "A text file created with Apple’s TextEdit named “Serial Numbers Software” keeps it all together. When I type “serial” into spotlight, that file never shows up, even after scrolling through the 362 files it does find. A Word doc with serial in the name does. If it weren’t so irritating it would be spooky."

    I keep a similar list for my online app purchases, named "Application Reg Codes". It's a Wordpad document, and it's been a lifesaver for me on several occasions.

    As a test, I used Vista's seach box (from the Start Menu) to search for "application", "app", "reg", and "codes". Each time, Vista found the Wordpad file I was looking for. It also found other files or folders with those keywords (the "Applications" folder, "regedit.exe", "Appalacian Spring", and so on), but each time it *did* find "Application Reg Codes".

    When accessing the file from the search results, it opens in Word 2007.

    As an additional test, I saved it as a text file, renaming it "Applications Reg Codes2" and did another series of searches from the Start Menu search box. Vista found it each time, and it opens in Notepad.

    These are observations, *not* a series of slams against Spotlight.

    Maybe the '90s aren't so bad at all. ;)
    M.R. Kennedy
    • Vista also sucks

      As a non-Mac user, I can't comment on Spotlight. As a Vista user, I can only say that the search SUCKS. I can actually have Explorer open in one window and be looking at a list containing a file. I open another window of Explorer and do a search for that same file. Vista does not always find it.

      It's my opinion that to be useful, any search facility should not have to be "babied" into finding your stuff.

      I find it easier not to use real-time indexing and index using a program that manually indexes all file names and content.
      sackbut
      • In my recent experience...

        sackbut:

        In my recent (and admittedly, limited) experience, Vista's search function from within Explorer worked quite well.

        Perhaps your search parameters were more stringent than mine were. I just ran about a half-dozen test searches, using a pair of Explorer windows, for several different files. Before beginning, I made it a point to use a separate program (Directory Opus) to locate several files in specific locations. Some of them were several levels deep, others were duplicated on both HDDs on my system.

        Vista found them all. And each time, I checked the total number of files located in each Explorer window. The numbers in each windows matched *each time*.

        This is in no way a definitive test. The files I searched for were simple (either Word .DOC files or plain text files. And yes, Vista found references *inside* unrelated .DOC files that matched the search word I used (for example, "codes".) However, the known filename(s) were displayed in the Explorer windows.

        FYI, and it's something which may have improved both the search time(s) and the chances of finding the files I was "searching" for, I have a fast machine and specifically made it a point to turn on Vista's indexing system and also ticked the appropriate check box so that Vista would index virtually everything on my system. I knew that, originally, it would Vista take some time to accomplish this, so I set it up in such a way that Vista could begin the indexing shortly before I walked away from the machine. It had plenty of time to create the index, and it now updates that index on the fly, with little or no perceptable effort. *Your* mileage may vary. :)

        I don't use Vista's search function all that often, but it's there when I need it and there's no question in my mind that it works, and works rather well.
        M.R. Kennedy
      • Wow. How odd...

        You seem to be having terrible luck with Vista's search. I don't use Vista yet myself, I'm still on XP and will be for some time yet. I have no need for Vista yet as XP has performed pretty flawlessly for me for years now, and that includes the search which I have never had a complaint about. But we do have one person at the office on a new laptop loaded with Vista and just asking him about how the search has worked for him, his response was no problems, it always finds what I'm looking for. I guess some people just have bad luck with that kind of thing. XP's search always works great for me, it would be a real hoot if Microsoft took a backwards step in drive searches from XP to Vista. Some how I doubt it.
        Cayble
  • UI workaround

    One way to avoid the annoying "feature" where Spotlight starts searching with the first letter of what you've typed in is to write out the search term elsewhere, copy it, and then paste it into the Spotlight window.

    Agreed that it doesn't quite deliver yet.
    tic swayback
    • And the sad thing is....

      ... that this is not even remotely a new idea. In the 1980s ICL (now part of Fujitsu) had a solution for data search called "Content Addressable File Storage". With a name like that do you want to guess how it worked?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_Addressable_File_Store

      It is shameful that 25 years later the major players cannot get this right. CAFS worked until memory became cheap enough to kill it off.
      bportlock
      • There are few new ideas

        Most of what I see in the industry is a new implementation of an old idea, made
        possible because the relative economic costs the inputs have changed.

        Seymour Cray had most of the supercomputing ideas. We're just working through
        them using the latest and greatest. Or the latest and cheapest.

        Robin
        R Harris
  • Search correctly

    You should not be doing a keyword search if you are looking for a file name. It also helps if you enter int he file type that you are looking for. Personally, I never use spotlight, I find it annoying. I just use command-F for the standard find. Works better imho.
    Stuka
  • Google Desktop flies

    Hello, I don't know about Vista, but what I can say about Google Desktop is that it really harnesses you with 2 second-searches, right at your fingertips. I don't use Outlook or Outlook Express mail search funcionalities anymore, for more than 2 years. You should be prepared to give away 2 GB of your hard drive though :)
    luis.noronha@...
    • Its pretty poor

      I used it a while back for about a day but uninstalled it as it wasn't very good, also once I moved to Vista the built in search was far better than Googles bloatware effort.
      Skullet
  • vista search also not so good

    first--vista should give me the option to get search off the start menu. i want to use keyboard keys to open programs (and to shutdown/restart/sleep vista). instead, i'm forced to use the mouse because when i use the keyboard such as windows key and w (which used to open up word), it now searches for the letter w.

    second--search should give me the option to open it in advanced mode. if i, like you with your software registration file, want to search the title of a file--then i should be able to do that (i wish windows livemail desktop did that). almost always when i search for files (which is kind of rare)--i need the advanced option because the file is really lost/can only be found by date/etc.

    third--vista search pops up files with the name of the file first. that solves the problem you have had with spotlight.

    fourth--vista search is kind of slow--it is not immediate like i've seen spotlight be; it takes 4 or 5 seconds to pop up (an eternity on a computer). this may be on my computer where i have probably 20 gigabytes of documents plus 50gb of music and my computer is 2ish years old.

    finally--has anyone tried file sharing with ad hoc networking (peer to peer)? this was THE reason i wanted vista. it sucks. i can't get it to work.
    hansonjb
    • Vista search

      hansonjb:

      I'll try to answer your points one by one, as well as I can.

      First: Yes, you can search off the Start Menu (presuming that you're using the Vista menu instead of the "classic" menu), using the keyboard, by pressing the Windows key. Note that the cursor is in the search bar at the bottom of the menu, below the All Programs listing. Begin typing the name of the file you wish to find. If it's an application (such as Word), it will appear. Then use the arrow keys to jog down to Word and press Enter to launch it. If you're looking for a non-app file, use the arrow keys to navigate to it and, again, press Enter to open it. No mice were harmed or handled. :)

      Second: No, you can't initially run Advanced Mode, but the Tab key works just fine in the Start Menu. You have to hit it several times, but you *can* use it to highlight "See All Results" after the initial search, which will open a separate search window when selected. From there, you can use the Tab key to select Advanced Search and continue from there, using the keyboard or mouse as you like. And yes, it can be slow. No, on the test I ran, it did not find the file I was looking for (Application Reg Codes) based on the *original* search name (O&O Defrag). Perhaps I was doing it incorrectly. YMMV.

      Third: No further comment needed.

      Fourth: Yes, the search function can be a bit slow, but I typed in several music file names and within 5-10 seconds, Vista found them for me. Granted, my system is only a few months old and isn't too far back from the bleeding edge. Again, YMMV.

      I don't use ad hoc networking, so I cannot comment on that. I use both wired and wireless networking through a router.
      M.R. Kennedy
  • Spotlight - It works well for me.

    I've never had any problems finding my documents using Spotlight. It's so quick and
    easy that I sometimes use it to launch applications, as it can be quicker than
    navigating to my Applications folder. I don't know whether or not it gives preference
    to recent documents or not, but it always seems to find exactly what I'm looking for
    and it's always right at the top of the search. I don't think you can judge Spotlight's
    performance on just one file alone. You may be a data junky, but I seriously doubt
    you have the number of files that I work with on my notebook. I have a least 60GB of
    user data that I access frequently and Spotlight has no touble at all sifting through all
    of this data.
    UbiquitousGeek