573 – Searching in Outlook

clip_image002A reader recently got in touch to ask for help in finding stuff in Outlook. The search capability within the application most of us use most of the time has evolved considerably throughout its life, with a prominently placed search bar now adorning the top of the main window. When you click into it, lots of helpful filtering and searching capabilities are offered in the ribbon below.

clip_image004It’s worth getting to grips with a few simple text search terms, though, so when you’re typing some search term you can direct Outlook to particular items. Helpfully, using the options in the menu will actually build the query that is fed to search, so you can type them in future. Simple quick wins include things like using from:name to show only clip_image006emails that originated from a particular sender.

Or has:attachment, which will only show you mails that have other files attached. Combined with a few other criteria, you can filter the results of your search pretty hard, rather than sifting through them. Adding some other smarts like received:”last month” can streamline some more. For more info on search terms, see here.

The scenarios our reader posed, though, were specifically around searching in the calendar – eg, do I have a meeting in my calendar with a particular person? Or what recurring appointments are due to expire this month?

If you navigate to your Calendar and click the down-pointing arrow to the right of the Search box, it will display a clip_image008small form with series of other fields you can complete, in this case relevant to appointments rather than messages.

Click + Add more options to bring up a picker that lets you add even more – such as whether the meeting is a recurring one, or if it shows in calendar as Busy or not. Selecting the options builds the query as before, so you can see a variety of defined names – like organizer | organiser (depending on your locale) or requiredattendee:.

Coming back to the original question; if you want to find all future meetings in your calendar with anyone called Tony, you could type something like requiredattendee:tony start:>today. And if you want to find out which clip_image010recurring meetings are expiring soon, start by searching is:recurring start:>today. That will show you a list of future recurring appointments, but not give all the info we’re looking for since the default results view doesn’t show anything about the pattern of recurrence – so right-click on one of the column headings of the search results and select Field Chooser, where we can add some extra columns to the view.

clip_image012Now, in the pop out window, change the filter from Frequently-used fields to All Appointment fields, and scroll down to find Recurrence Range End. Now drag and drop that field into the column list, then click on it to sort descending so you’ll now see all the meetings that are set up with a recurring pattern, ordered by when that pattern is due to end. For added context, you could put Recurrence and Recurrence Pattern on there too.

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Don’t be alarmed if some of them are due to keep happening until a very long way into the future. We’ll probably have stopped using email by then.

History Lesson

Before Outlook arrived as part of Office 97, users of Exchange Server had an email client and a separate calendar app (Schedule+; that’s why some diehards still say things like “send me an S+”, meaning send a meeting request). Both would maintain a connection to the server and would chat back and forth, only downloading data when a message or attachment was opened. Although this put something of a penalty on the network, it meant there was no need to cache large amounts of data on a PC hard disk. Outlook replaced both the mail and S+ clients, but maintained the same synchronous connection to the server.

Outlook 2003 and Exchange 2003 changed the default model, since PC hard disks were getting much bigger and cheaper, so it made sense to have Outlook deal primarily with a cached copy of the user’s mailbox, bringing all kinds of performance benefits to both end user and to the operators of the server back-end. One really notable improvement was the ability to run fast searches against mailbox data that’s in the cache, rather than having to execute searches on the server.

Prior to the cached mode, the best-case scenario for running a search was the server returned messages that fit a particular query asked by the client – mails received this week, mails with FOO in the subject line etc. If the server had indexed the relevant properties (received date, subject etc), it was pretty quick at sending back the results. If the user wanted something more in-depth, it was a punishingly slow process as each message would need to be picked up and inspected to see if it met the query – so searching for every email with a particular word in the message body text would be laborious. Three cheers for cached mode and client-side indexing.

clip_image015If you look at Advanced Find in Outlook today, though, you’re staring into a time vortex that transports you right back to the late 1990s, as it hasn’t really changed, even if the speed of getting results back will be noticeably better since you’re almost certainly pulling them out of a local copy of your mailbox.

The first couple of tabs on the Advanced Find dialog let you search for mailbox items that fit some common criteria – but the third tab is a window into how Exchange stores and categorises messages, appointments, tasks etc.

clip_image017You can start Advanced Find from the Search Tools menu option as above. Or press CTRL+SHIFT+F.

Aside: most apps use CTRL+F to invoke Find – try it in Word, Excel etc – but in the mail client, CTRL+F forwards a message instead. Find out why, here.

The idea here is that you can build a query based on properties of messages – and when you select the Field from the extensive drop-down list, it would let you choose appropriate filters (some, like Flag Status or Receipt Requested would only have a couple of possible values, but others would let the user enter text, date or numeric filters).

Not all of the fields are used for much these days – eg InfoPath Form Type harks back to the days when the now-defunct InfoPath could be used to create mailable forms – but having a poke around in Advanced Find can give a curious user some insight into how Exchange and Outlook organises their data.

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