Experimenting With Natural Language Search In Windows 7 Searches

In my previous two articles, I talked about using Windows Search to find what you want. Some of the terminology I talked about in those articles can look more like Martian than your own normal way of speaking (undoubtedly because programmers who normally use that kind of language created the system). Why isn’t there a way to tell Windows what you want to find by "speaking" to it the way you would ordinarily ask someone a question? In theory, there is a way! It’s called Natural Language Search. Let’s see whether using it makes life (and searching) easier.

Start going natural

For some reason known only to Microsoft, Natural Language Search is not turned on by default. To enable it, type Folder Options into the Start Menu search box, then click on it. In Folder Options, go to the Search tab. Here you will see the option "Use natural language search". Check that box, click OK, and you’re set to go.

Nothing will look obviously different after you do this, until you start to search for something. Let’s see what a difference it makes.

Searches that make sense—sometimes

According to the Microsoft web site, Search makes use of the so called Advanced Query Syntax. Here’s their article explaining the terminology you can use for searches: Advanced Query Syntax (Windows). I discussed using query terms in the previous articles, and this should provide you with a comprehensive list of those terms.

However, in experimenting with Natural Language Search, I found that some searches that are supposed to work, according to Microsoft, did not work at all for me. Here’s their page that gives a very brief mention to Natural Language, all the way at the bottom: Advanced tips for searching in Windows. And here are some of the examples they gave: e‑mail today, documents 2011, author Susan, pictures vacation.

Since the search engine ignores common words like "the" and "from" and "of," you can leave those out even though the result sounds something less than natural. I decided to try searching leaving one of those words in, just to see if Natural Language Search really uses "natural" language.

To keep using my search term from the previous articles, let’s say that I want to look for pictures of cats. Instead of cat type:.jpg, let’s try picture of cat.

Wait a minute! What do you mean, "No items match your search"? I’ve got all kinds of pictures of cats. Just as YouTube and LOLcats would never survive without pictures of cats, people who have cats are bound to take pictures. It’s one of those facts of life.

All right, let’s try it a different way. This time, photo of cat.

Apparently, the "natural language" I’m using is unnatural as far as Search is concerned. Let’s try one more time with cat photo. (I discovered that picture cat gives the same results.)

That’s more like it! It appears that Windows 7 only considers.jpg files to be "Pictures," while other file types are called "Documents" or "Files," but that’s OK. As long as the search turns up what you’re looking for, it doesn’t matter how the results are categorized by Search.

Dates do matter

Let’s say I didn’t want to include the cat pictures I created today, but only older ones. This takes a little figuring out, and it does have to be done the way Windows thinks is natural, which may not match the way the average person thinks is natural. To get the results I want, I tried typing cat photo created before today. This got quite a few results.

However, when I tried cat photo created june 2012 I got nothing. Even though there are at least 20 images properly tagged or named as "cat" that meet that search. (I also tried document created june 2012 and got nothing—no documents of any kind!)

As you can see, finding files with Natural Language Search is not quite as "natural" as most people might think.

What else can I find?

A lot depends on how your drive is indexed, and what software you are using to create and store your files. We’ve already seen that only.jpg files are counted as "pictures."

If you want your emails to be indexed, for example, and if you don’t use the default folder to store email in (or if you don’t use a Windows email app) you will have to tell Search to index the folders where your emails are kept. See the previous tutorial for instructions on how to do this: How to Use Search in Windows 7 and Customize the Search Index.

However, email will be correctly indexed only if you are using an e-mail client that is compatible with Windows Search and how Windows indexes data. This means that you should be using an e-mail client such as Microsoft Outlook, Windows Live Mail or Mozilla’s Thunderbird.

I use Eudora as a desktop email client, and I have not been able to get Search to find any email messages for me. If I type in the file name for my Eudora inbox, it finds that with no problem, but the individual messages are not indexed or searched.

The search within the Search

Even more than with the other ways of using Search, figuring out Natural Language Search is a matter of time and plenty of experimentation. If you’re willing to be flexible, and if you keep in mind that what is "natural language" for a programmer is almost always something different from what is "natural language" for the rest of us, you should be able to figure out how to make Natural Language Search work for you. If this isn’t worth the effort, please see the previous articles on how to do the search using file names, wildcards, and the Advanced Query Syntax terminology.