|Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 8 Issue 9
|Are You Always Searching Through Your Email? Try Saved Searches!
If you have lots of email, whether you use a regular email program (Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Eudora, etc.) or you use webmail (email on a web site like gmail.com, rcn.com, etc.), you have probably used your email program's Search or Find function to try to locate important messages or sets of related messages.
If you have found searching your email to be useful, over time you have probably wished for a way to keep some of those searches and perform them again, without having to start each one over from scratch.
Here's the good news: In many email programs, if there is a way to search for messages, there may also be a way to save your search criteria and re-use it! Each email program is different, so yours may call them "Smart Folders," "Smart Mailboxes," "Saved Searches," "Search Folders," or "Mail Views." To keep this discussion simple, I will use the term "Smart Folder."
Making a Smart Folder
When you search your email, many email programs have some sort of "Save" button right next to the search results that lets you store your search criteria as a Smart Folder and give it a name to use it again later. There may also be a function where you make a new Smart Folder by choosing a name and criteria without doing a search first.
Does my email program let me make a Smart Folder or Save a Search?
In a quick survey of email programs and webmail systems, I found that:
What's the difference between a regular email folder and a Smart Folder?
- Many regular email programs have this ability, including Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Eudora.
- A few webmail systems provide a way to save your searches, including gmail.com, rcn.com, and Godaddy's domain webmail.
- Unfortunately, as far as I can tell a number of other webmail systems do not have this ability, including aol.com, comcast.net, earthlink.net, msn.com (a.k.a. live.com or outlook.com), and verizon.net.
A regular email folder (or mailbox) is a container where your email messages are actually stored. There are two types:
A Smart Folder doesn't actually store any messages. It has two parts:
- Standard folders: Inbox, Sent, Drafts, Trash (or Deleted Items), and Junk (or Spam or Bulk). Your email program puts messages into these different folders as you compose, send, and receive email.
- Additional or "custom" folders you may have created, e.g., "Smith Client," "Conferences," "Uncle Joe," "Soccer Club," etc. These folders contain only those messages that you manually move into them. Also, any Rules (or Filters) you've created may move your messages into these folders as well.
When you click to "look inside" a Smart Folder, your email program performs a search through your regular folders and displays the messages that match its criteria. You might see lots of messages listed or you might see none. You might only see messages from a single regular folder (like your Inbox), or you might see messages from many different folders.
- A set of search criteria, and
- A name.
You can do all the same things with those messages (open, reply to, forward, delete, etc.) that you can do with a message in a regular folder because, even though they're displayed in the Smart Folder, those messages are actually each located in a regular folder. They are not copies; they are the originals. No messages are "stored in" a Smart Folder.
Deleting a Smart Folder simply forgets about that Saved Search and doesn't delete any messages, whereas deleting a regular folder will delete all the messages stored in it, along with any subfolders.
I recommend deleting a Smart Folder when it's no longer useful to you. That will reduce your clutter, and depending on which email software you're using it may also make the program a little more efficient.
That's it. You now know the most important things about email Smart Folders. You can stop here if that's all you want, or read on for my more detailed advice.
Why would I make a Smart Folder?
Here are some examples of useful Smart Folders you might create:
What's the difference between a Smart Folder and a Rule or Filter?
- Find all emails To or From a specific person across all folders, regardless of whether they sent the messages (so they're in your Inbox) or you sent them (so they're in your Sent folder) or you filed them away (in your additional folders): Useful for reviewing your conversations with that person, especially if they use multiple email addresses.
- Find all email To or From multiple specific people across all folders: Useful to review conversations with a group of people; perhaps you're all working on a particular project together.
- Find messages older than a given date: Useful for cleaning out old messages.
- Find unread messages newer than a given date: Useful to see recent messages that you haven't read yet.
- Find messages based on multiple criteria: Unread, larger than a given size, From or To specific people, Subject contains certain keywords, before or after a given date, etc.
- Find messages you've "Flagged" across all folders (if your email program has a "flagging" feature): Useful to implement a simple "find important email" function.
- Find messages for technical purposes, e.g., messages From you and To you (i.e., messages you sent to yourself, which might have been an announcement or might have a mistake), messages larger than a certain size (to find big attachments), etc.
A Smart Folder performs a search and displays any messages that match its search criteria.
A Rule (or Filter) combines search criteria with actions to perform, and doesn't display a list of messages. If you have created some Rules to manage your email, when new messages arrive (or if you "apply" your Rules to messages you've already received), if any of those messages matches a Rule's criteria, that Rule performs one or more actions on that message, like moving it to a different folder. Some email programs also let you create Rules that examine and act on messages you send.
What else should I know about Smart Folders?
Once created, you can usually edit both a Smart Folder's name and search criteria.
I recommend naming your Smart Folders according to what they find, e.g., "Smith messages" or "Unread messages in the past week."
In general there are two types of searches:
Either type of search may look in only one folder (like your Inbox), or it might search all of your folders.
- Single criterion: A simple search for messages that have a particular name or address or keyword or date, etc.
- Multiple criteria: A more complex search for messages, e.g., unread messages received in the past week, or messages from either John Smith's work or home addresses, etc.
Email programs let you specify multiple criteria in different ways. Some have you make a list of criteria and then let you choose whether "All" or "Any" of those criteria must be true for a message to be found by the search. Others are more free-form, letting you mix and match criteria in more flexible ways.
When specifying multiple criteria for a particular search, it's important to understand whether your criteria should be joined with "and" vs. "or" (sometimes phrased as "matching All of these conditions" vs. "matching Any"). For example:
And yes, this is a practical application of Set Theory or Venn diagrams.
- "Messages From and To John Smith" would be specified as "From: (John's address)" OR "To: (John's address)." If you used "AND" instead, your search would find nothing, since any given message on your end can't be both "From John" and "To John."
- "Unread messages received after Date X" would be specified as "Message is Unread" AND "Date is X or later."
- "Messages from John Smith's work and home email addresses" would be specified as "From: (John's work address)" OR "From: (John's home address)." If you used "AND" instead, your search would find nothing, since any given message only has one "From" address, and it can't have two different values.
Searching email can be tricky:
This is why I generally recommend searching for a person's email address (which is unique) rather than their name (which often isn't). It can take a few tries before you get the hang of this and get the search results you want.
- Searching for "smith" might display email from your client John Smith, your friend Mary Smith, and the Smithsonian.
- Searching for "john smith" might match email from your client John Smith, and your friend Mary's husband whose first name is also John, and the email from staff members at the Smithsonian whose first names are John, plus email about Smithsonian exhibits about John Wayne.
Depending on your email program, if you want to see both sides of your conversations with a specific person, you may need to make a make a Smart Folder that specifies two criteria: "From" the given address and "To" that address as well.
Two separate searches may display some of the same messages. For example, if John sent you a message about an estimate, then separate searches for "From: John" and "Subject: Estimate" will both display that same message in their separate results.
Depending on which email software you're using, a Smart Folder may also search your Drafts, Junk (or Spam or Bulk), and Trash (or Deleted Items) folders, or it may ignore those folders.
I use webmail but I don't see a Smart Folder or Save This Search function. How do I do this?
When you do a search of the messages in your webmail, say, for "smith," does the address at the top of your browser change to include the word "smith," i.e., does it become something like "http://...smith..."? If so (and this is true of gmail.com), then you can make Favorites (or Bookmarks) in your web browser to "capture" those search criteria (not their results). The downside of this method is that these Favorites will only be listed in that browser on that computer.
If you want to save multiple searches this way, you could go further and make a folder of Favorites (or Bookmarks) in your browser with a name like "Email Saved Searches" to organize them.
However, if the web address does not change like that, the only other technique I can suggest is to look for a function resembling "Save this search" somewhere in your webmail system's interface.
If you use Gmail's webmail (gmail.com), where the web address does change when you search, an improvement on this technique is to use the "Quick Links" function, which lets you save a list of Favorite links in your Gmail account. To install Quick Links:
Then, to save a search in gmail.com:
- On gmail.com, click the "gear" icon, then click Settings, then click Labs
- Enable "Quick Links"
- Click "Save Changes" at the bottom
Your Quick Links are stored in your Gmail account, so they're available from any computer or web browser you use. However, you can't edit the names or criteria nor reorder them, you can only delete them and create replacements.
- Perform a search of your email
- If Quick Links is not visible on the left, click the "..." icon (Gadget) at the lower left to reveal it.
- Click "Add Quick Link" to save the search and give it a name
Apple Mail Tip
If you use Apple Mail, sometimes Smart Mailboxes display out-of-date search results. Selecting a Smart Mailbox, pulling down the Mailbox menu and clicking Refresh can help.
Other "Smart" functions in other programs
Many other programs can save searches through their data for later use, separate from their regular containers that actually store that data. For example:
Where to go from here
- The iTunes software has regular Playlists (which you manually drag songs into) and Smart Playlists (which display only those songs that match criteria you specify).
- Windows Explorer (which manages the files and folders on your computer, including your Desktop) has regular Folders and Saved Searches.
- Apple's Address Book (Contacts) has regular Groups and Smart Groups.
- Apple's Finder (which manages the files and folders on your Macintosh, including your Desktop) has regular Folders and Smart Folders.
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