Your Guide To Unlocking The Power Of Spotlight Search In OS X


Any OS worth its salt will feature a search bar, because in this day and age, it is impractical to try and recall file locations through terabytes of data. Microsoft Windows’ built in search was easily replaced by the Google Quick Search which is made even more powerful with some power parameters. However, Mac OS X’s Spotlight Search has not attracted as much attention since its release in April 2005; possibly because the OS itself is easy to sort or perhaps people simply don’t care about it. Though, people really should care about Spotlight search, because it makes navigating the OS an art form; hardened Google search veterans will appreciate this even more. Let us walk you through how.

Spotlight Search


Navigation Primer

Activate using ⌘ + spacebar, or by clicking the magnifying glass. You can copy/move files directly from the search box and a ⌘ + click opens the highlighted file in finder. You can enter an app’s name here as a search string and launch it directly as well. In order to search the web, simply put in your required string in Spotlight and it will find you web links as well as wikipedia links based on the search string.

Boolean Operators

For those of us not familiar with Boolean operators, they are logical notations, think of them as a formal method of explaining something to a computer. You can search for an object using operators such as AND (for more than one string), OR (for either of the searched strings) and NOT (excluding items); all boolean strings must be in caps. For example, if I want to search my Mac for rock songs that do not contain the word music. I will simply search for:

rock NOT music

Spotlight Search Boolean String

We can also make the search more specific by eliminating multiple strings in parentheses.

rock NOT (music OR Resume)

Spotlight Search Boolean String 2

File Extensions

You can even search for specific file extensions, similar to Windows’ *.[file extension] search string, you can redo the above search by eliminating these .caf files that keep showing up and the results will be.

Rock NOT (classic OR .caf)

Spotlight Search Extension

The same effect can be replicated using KIND, when you want to locate specific file types. Such as:

Rock kind:mp3

Spotlight Search Kind

And it will return all rock tracks in mp3. If you wish to mix search strings, simply add ‘NOT’ before ‘kind:’ and you will exclude that file extension from your searches. You can even use ‘kind’ to search file types, such as ‘music’, ‘images’, ‘documents’, ‘text’, ‘docs’, markup’, etc.


You can even locate files using date ranges with operators like ‘created’ or ‘modified’ for those files you know you created, but can’t seem to locate yourself. Let us try with CVs.

CV created:1/1/2013-1/1/2014

Spotlight Search  Date

For a search range of CVs between 1st Jan 2013 and 1st Jan 2014. You can give a specific date, or a simple string like ‘Today’ or ‘yesterday’.


You can even use Spotlight search as a calculator, searching something as simple as 1+1 or even complex equations such as (sqrt(81))/3^2. You can look up simple words, if you jot them down in the search box (highlight to see, click to read in detail).

Spotlight Search Calculator Complex Spotlight Search Simple Maths

Searching Through Menus

This feature is unique, you can actually sift through the available menus of an open app. Getting you to search topics just as fast as it would get you to a file.  This sub spotlight can be accessed through the help button when an app is active and instead of taking you directly to the feature, it launches the menu where it can be accessed, complete with path.

So, that’s the searching part of Spotlight search resolved. Let us go over how to optimize search to suit your tastes.

Search Categories

Go to System Preferences > Spotlight

Here you will see a list of all indexed apps and folders and the order in which their results will appear. You can rearrange these files to an order that suits you and you can even eliminate some categories from showing up in search results by unchecking them here or by adding a document/file/folder/kind to the ‘privacy’ tab. You can change the default launch keyboard shortcut here as well.

Spotlight Search Preferences

Keyboard Shortcuts

Apart from the universal keyboard shortcuts mentioned at the start of this guide, there are other shortcuts that you can use to different ends. After you have searched your query, you can directly access your desired result through a series of commands.

⌘ + D: Quicklook term in the Dictionary app

⌘ + L: Actually View the term in the Dictionary app

⌘ + B: To do a web search of your term.

⌘ + R: To reveal a specific search item

⌘ + O or Return/enter: To open the top result

⌘ + I: To get its information from Finder.


There are other third-party solutions to help “optimize” search on  Mac, but it is important to understand the full potential of what you have before you move on to acquiring upgrades or mods. The spotlight search is full of potential and then some. This may not seem to be a critical feature, but it is a credit to just how functional Mac OS X gets in places you least expect. Know anything about spotlight we missed? Let us know in the comments.

  • Lê Hùng Thiện

    Great article! Thanks!

  • My2Yen

    I thought I knew the full power of spotlight. Your article made me realize I didn’t. Thanks for filling in some gaps.

  • Artiste212

    I agree – this had things I didm’t know that I didn’t know.

  • LA

    Hovering over an item for a bit will open a quicklook popover of it