I have an enormous email archive in my Gmail account but can never find specific archived messages without looking through tons of search results on a search. What are the key Gmail search features I should try that could help?
Google’s incredibly popular Gmail service has been online long enough now that even modest email correspondents find that their archives contain thousands or tens of thousands of emails. I’m a pretty hardcore email user and would guess that my archive of messages is well over 100,000, if not an order of magnitude larger. In other words, a whole lotta email!
Shortcuts: 1. Quotes | 2. Subjects | 3. Senders | 4. Recipients | 5. Attachments | 6. Age | 7. Size
While Google has always encouraged users to archive everything and trust the database and data search features, that only works if you spend the time to learn how to do power searches and more sophisticated searches in Gmail. If you’re still just typing in a few words, like someone’s name, then it’s no wonder that your search results are overwhelming!
1. GMAIL: QUOTES AND “+” / “-“
At the most basic, it’s key to remember that you can refine a search once done, so if you type in a query and get thousands of results, add a word or phrase to narrow things down. Handy to know is that quotes force adjacency, so “dave taylor” is a very different search than dave taylor because the latter would also match a message wherein you mention dave smith and larry taylor, while the quoted search will not.
Similarly, if you have a lot of ambiguity in your search, the results might be all over the place. Add words that must be in the search (Gmail can search for synonyms too, which can be surprising) by prefacing the word or phrase with a “+” symbol. Want to have a stop word that, if present, makes it an automatic negative match? use the “-” symbol to preface the word or phrase. For example +ford mustang -horse will search for mustang and require the word ford to be present but exclude any that also contain the word horse.
Those two can really help, but there are what’s known as search predicates, special words that offer far more power and capabilities. Let’s check ’em out…
2. SEARCH JUST EMAIL SUBJECT LINES
Most people do a pretty good job of summarizing the purpose of a message in the subject line, particularly in business settings. It should be no surprise then that you can search for words or phrases that appear specifically in that subject line. This is done with the subject: predicate:
Notice that “subject:las” has no space and includes a colon; you must follow that format exactly for search predicates to work. This would be better structured as subject:”las vegas” to ensure both words are found in the subject, bu notice the results are pretty good (except #2, which has “las vegas” in the message body. Sometimes Gmail just does its own thing, frustratingly)
3. SEARCH FOR SENDERS
Another power search move in Gmail is to search for messages based on the sender. Since it’s so good at autocomplete, you can just begin to enter an email address or you can use a name. If I want to find email messages from Hilton Hotels – more specifically “hilton.com” – here’s how I’d do that with the from: predicate:
Notice that it matches both discussion threads where there’s more than one message and individual messages are automatically generated after I’ve stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn, which I apparently do with some frequency!
4. SEARCH BY INTENDED RECIPIENT
The opposite of searching by sender is to search your Gmail archive for messages that you sent to someone. Email recipient searches can be easily done by using the “to:” predicate. For example, email that I’ve sent to my friend Lamar can be found with to:lamar, as shown:
Notice that it’s also matched Lamar’s entry in my Contacts too, with his email address shown (I’ve redacted it for his privacy). Since Gmail is great at autocompletion, the search suggests his email address as I type too, though you can also search for a subset or just the first portion of an email address too.
While we’re looking at this result, did you see that Gmail suggests additional criteria for the search? “Has attachment”, “Last 7 days”, and “From me” are all suggestions based on Gmail profiling my search history and are easily added to the search with a single click.
5. SEARCH BY ATTACHMENT
In fact, you can click on “Has attachment” or you can just type in has:attachment. But you can search for a few more possible additions and, most importantly, you can — and should! — combine search terms to create a more sophisticated search. Like this: to:lamar has:attachment has:youtube…
This is a pretty sophisticated search that only finds four matches across five years of archived email: to match, a message must have “lamar” in the recipient list, have an attachment of any sort, and include a link to a YouTube video. I could also add further terms too, like “Axis & Allies” (quoted) to identify that message I sent years and years ago about playing Axis & Allies and Zombies.
6. SEARCH BY THE AGE OF THE EMAIL
Another useful search is to constrain the results to be older – or newer – than a specific period. Perhaps I want to search for email related to the World Cup, but don’t want to see everything I’ve received in the last month or two. This is easily done with the older_than: predicate, as shown:
Notice that the search is “world cup” older_than:90d which only matches messages that are at least 91 days ago and include the exact phrase “world cup”. You can also search for newer_than: if you want to perform the opposite search, just for messages younger than a specified age. This can be particularly helpful if you get a lot of messages on a subject; you can constrain your search to just being in the last few weeks.
7. SEARCH BY MESSAGE SIZE
Finally, if you’re like many people, you probably have a small number of enormous email messages in your archive that are consuming a lot of your storage space. Eventually, you can indeed run out of space, something that happened to me about two years ago on Gmail. Find those offenders by searching with the predicate larger: followed by a size, typically in megabytes. For example, to search for email messages that are larger than 30MB, I can use this query:
Unless someone is incredibly long-winded, these are going to be messages that have enormous attachments. Since there’s no easy way to delete attachments from email, a typical step at this point is to just delete these huge messages and be done with it.
There are more search predicates and more ways you can combine things to create sophisticated searches, and Google has a great tutorial on Gmail Power Searches you can read. Try the ones highlighted in this article, however, and you’ll be well on your way to taming that enormous archive!
Pro Tip: I’ve written quite a bit about Gmail and Google services. Please check out my Gmail help library for lots more tutorials while you’re visiting!