How to Use Spotlight Search on Your iPhone or iPad

By Chris Hoffman on September 20th, 2015

iphone 6

Spotlight search isn’t just for Macs. Powerful web and on-device search is just a quick swipe away from your iPhone or iPad’s home screen. It’s a convenient way to launch apps, search the web, perform calculations, and do lots more.

Spotlight has been around for a while, but it just became much more powerful in iOS 9. It can now search content from all apps on your device — not just Apple’s own apps — and provides suggestions before you even search.

Access Spotlight Search

To access the Spotlight search interface, go to your iPhone or iPad’s home screen and swipe to the right. You’ll find the Spotlight search interface to the left of the primary home screen.

You can also touch somewhere in the grid of apps on any homescreen and swipe your finger downwards. You’ll see less suggestions when you pull down to search — just app suggestions.

Proactive Siri

As of iOS 9, Spotlight provides suggestions for recent content and apps you might want to use. This is part of Apple’s plan to transform Siri into a Google Now or Cortana-style assistant that provides information before you ask.

On the Spotlight screen, you’ll see recommendations for contacts you might want to contact and apps you might want to use. Siri uses factors like the time of day and your location to guess what you might want to open.

You’ll also see quick links to find potentially useful locations nearby — for example, Dinner, Bars, Shopping, and Gas. This uses Yelp’s location database and takes you into Apple Maps. These also vary depending on the time of day.

The suggestions also provide links to recent news stories, which will open in Apple’s News app.

This is new in iOS 9, so expect Apple to add a lot more proactive features in the future.

Searching

Just tap the search field at the top of the screen and start typing to search, or tap the microphone icon and start talking to search with your voice.

Spotlight searches a variety of sources. Spotlight uses Bing and Apple’s own Spotlight suggestions service to provide links to web pages, map locations, and other stuff you might want to see when you search. Content provided by apps on your iPhone or iPad is also searched, beginning with iOS 9. Use Spotlight to search your email, messages, music, or practially anything else. It also searches apps installed on your device, so you can start typing an app’s name and tap it to launch it without locating that app’s icon somewhere on your homescreen.

Plug in a calculation to get a quick answer without opening the Calculator app, or start yping a contact’s name to get options for quickly calling or texting them. There’s a lot more you can do with Spotlight, too — just try other searches.

Search for something and you’ll also see links to “Search Web,” “Search App Store,” and “Search Maps,” allowing you to easily search the web, Apple’s App Store, or Apple Maps for something without first opening your web browser, the app store, or Apple Maps.

Customizing Spotlight Search

You can customize the Spotlight interface. If you don’t like the Siri suggestions feature, you can disable those suggestions. You can also control which apps Spotlight searches, preventing search results from certain apps from appearing.

To customize this, open the Settings app, tap General, and tap “Spotlight Search.” Toggle “Siri Suggestions” on or off, and select which apps you want to see search results for under “Search Results.”

You’ll see two “special” types of results buried in the list here. These are “Bing Web Search” and “Spotlight Suggestions.” These control the web search results that aren’t provided by individual apps. You can choose to enable them or not.

Not every app will provide search results — developers have to update their apps with this feature.


Spotlight search isn’t extremely configurable beyond just choosing which apps and types of search results you want to see. It’s designed to work like Google or Microsoft’s search features, just working intelligently to provide the best answer to whatever you search for without a lot of fiddling.

Image Credit: Karlis Dambrans on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 09/20/15
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