How to Use Search in Windows 7 and Customize the Search Index

Once upon a time there was a program called Lotus Magellan that made indexing and searching a hard drive astonishingly easy. You did have to tell it to build an index, but once you did that, all you had to do was type in your search term, and Magellan would go through the index, find all the files containing your search term, and display them to you in a window. You could also save your searches so those files would be immediately accessible again.

So what, you say? What’s that got to do with anything? Well, believe it or not, with Windows Vista Microsoft finally began giving Windows users the same search skills that Magellan gave the DOS users decades before—and much more. Windows XP had Search, but it was slower and much less sophisticated. And Windows 7 has added improvements to Windows Vista and Windows XP. Let’s take a look at Search, and see what you can do with this whizbang tool.

Before the Search, the Index - What Is It? What Does It Do?

I’m going to take a moment to discuss the Index, because most people will want to modify it to be sure it is personalized to fit their needs.

So what exactly is this mysterious index from which Search finds its results? Those of us who used Windows XP remember the indexing process as something that ran in the background and often slowed the computer down so much that many of us turned it off. Windows 7’s indexing runs in the background too, but so smoothly that unless the computer’s resources are already pushed to the max, most people will not even notice when it runs.

By default, the Index is created from all the common Windows 7 file locations like My Documents and your Libraries. If you have created your own file and folder structure, you will want to tell Windows to index those folders as well (it’s not done automatically). Go to the Control Panel, which, as you’ll notice, has its own search box (I’ll talk more about these search boxes in a bit). Type indexing options into the box (you probably won’t even have to finish typing before the results turn up).

Here you see the default index locations for my computer (I have edited out the personalized folders for the sake of clarity).

If you want to add your own folders to the index, click Modify. You’ll be shown a list of locations and you can expand any drive and choose any folder.

If there are locations you don’t need indexed (for example, I don’t actively use Windows Sticky Notes) you can un-check them. When you’re done, click OK, and from then on your index will be personalized for you.

For more information on the Index, see this article from the Microsoft web site. Improve Windows searches using the index: frequently asked questions.

Starting Your Search with the Start Menu

Most people immediately notice the Search box in the Start Menu, and learn to type into it to find the programs and files that they want. For people changing over from Windows XP, this takes a little getting used to (especially for those of us who spent quite a while optimizing our Start Menu) but the many advantages quickly become apparent. No more clicking through endless layers of menus to find what you want, or spending time moving things around in the Start Menu so they make some kind of sense. Just type, click, and go. The magnifying glass is the universal icon for "search."

When you type in a term, Search sorts the results by categories. If there are programs that contain the term, they’ll be displayed first. Here, I’ve picked a search term that I knew would display a lot of results, although none of them are programs. As you can see, each type of file is sorted into its category, and a few files are displayed with the option to see more. Search doesn’t always assign the categories properly—you can see that the songs in my Disney album are listed as Documents—but it does find everything that has been indexed that contained the term. Since the space available in the search-results window is limited, you can click on each category’s name to expand it to see the rest.

So now if I want to see a photo of me and my cat, or listen to a song, or read an e-book, all I have to do is click and it’s done.

Other Searches in Other Places

As you’ve seen, the Control Panel has its own search box. But it’s not alone. Open up the other Windows applications and you’ll see search boxes in all of them. And the great thing about those search boxes is that they are context sensitive. That is, each one searches within the boundaries of the application in which you’ve typed your search term—as we did with the Control Panel.

Here is the search box from Windows Explorer on my computer. Yours will probably look different, because I modified Windows Explorer to show me my C:\ drive by default.

You’re probably already familiar with the search box in Internet Explorer, which shows up in the URL bar, allowing you to do a search of each individual web site by just typing in your terms.

Seek and you will find

The best way to become familiar with Search is just to try it out. If you see that Search is not displaying files that you know are there, take the time to personalize your Index. Doing that will make Search smarter, so you can get your information at warp speed. We’re not quite to the point of being able to say "Computer!" like Captain Kirk did and get what we want, but this comes pretty darn close.