Learning Windows Search

Having all your stuff on your computer is great, until you can’t find it. You’ve probably got a ton of photos, documents, music, and even videos lurking on your hard drive, so much so, you may not even know what you have. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just type a few words into a search box and have your stuff magically appear?

Actually, you can, and you probably have used the Windows Search feature regularly in the past. With Search, you can do it all: find files, locate settings, and even launch applications. But it’s the finding and locating that we really want to master. After all, it’s really frustrating knowing you have something on your computer, somewhere, but not knowing exactly where to find it.

This How-To Geek School series is devoted to Windows Search from top to bottom – searching from Start, the desktop, and how to craft better searches with Advanced Query Syntax, so you can locate stuff quickly and efficiently.

We’re going to start things off with some basic Windows Search concepts, before ending today’s lesson with a discussion on the Search Indexer including how to fine-tune and extend it. Let’s begin with a short discussion on how Windows Search has evolved over the years.

The Evolution of Windows Search

Windows Search has come quite a way since Windows 95, and that’s putting it mildly. To be honest, search on those early Windows versions was kind of a joke. It was basic, limited, and decidedly unhelpful. It’s fair to say that on any Windows 9x version (including the incredibly awful Windows ME), search was something of an afterthought.

As a Windows 95 or Windows 98 user, finding stuff on your computer was pretty basic and slow. You might basically reserve it for those times when you spent an age downloading something over your 28.8 modem and forgot where you put it. As computer hard drives grew larger, and the files stored on them more numerous, using the old search just didn’t cut the mustard.

Windows Search, in its current iteration, describes the search appliance in Vista and all proceeding versions. Before that, in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, it was known as Windows Desktop Search (WDS), which was also available to Windows 2000 users as a downloadable, standalone update. WDS heralded the arrival of indexed search.

Indexed search means that the computer crawls through your files and settings, and builds an index – basically a big list that tells Search where everything is. You might think of it as an actual index in a real book, only this index provides instant results which appear as you type allowing you save time and keystrokes.

One of the biggest problems with the early Windows XP-era Indexing Service was that it was too much too soon. Computers then were still relatively underpowered and didn’t perform well with an index file consuming system resources, leading many to simply disable indexing completely. Remember, back in the early to mid-2000s, system RAM and CPUs were still measured in megahertz and system hard drives were comprised of slow spinning cylinders attached to a parallel interface that compared to today industry standard serial interface, was downright glacial.

Today, that’s no longer an issue because computers are now possible of handling any indexing you throw at them. It couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time because if your computer is anything like ours, you’ve had plenty of time to cram it full of stuff you’ve probably long forgotten about but on occasion you may need to locate.

It’s good to know that given the right tools and knowledge, you can find everything very quickly and easily. That’s where Windows Search comes in, which can find anything you’ve got stuffed away on your hard drive, if you know how to look for it.

Basic Windows Search Concepts

Let’s cover some Search basics and concepts so we have a better grasp of what’s to come in this series.

Start Search

You can currently search from Start in two ways, but they more or less do the same thing. There’s the old school way with the search field at the bottom of Start menu, such as in Windows 7.

And there’s the new-fangled Windows 8 way, with the Search feature that slides out from the left screen edge when you hit WIN+S (or other keyboard combination), or click the Search charm.

While the newer interface sports a few new bells and whistles, like we said, both interfaces – Windows 8 and prior versions – do basically the same thing. We will go over the Start search in greater detail tomorrow in Lesson 2, though we’ll mostly concentrate on the new Windows 8 way.

Desktop Search

When we refer to desktop search, we’re primarily talking about the ability to search from any File Explorer window.

Prior to Windows Vista, searching in Windows was limited to searching from the Start menu. In current versions of Windows, you can open any File Explorer window and search in that location.

In fact, when you search in this manner a special contextual toolbar or ribbon appears to provide the user with further options. We are going to cover Desktop Search from top to bottom in Lesson 3.

Boolean Operators

Anyone who’s been using the Internet to find stuff is probably familiar with Boolean operators. Examples of Boolean operators include AND, OR, and NOT.

Boolean lets users create relationships between search terms allowing you to string them together to create focused queries. This may either broaden your search or it may focus it. You can use Boolean in such a way that allows you to write expressions whereby you could search image files but NOT a certain kind, or you could search for Microsoft Word documents AND plain text files.

There’s a great deal more to learn about Boolean operators so we’ll cover it in full detail in Lesson 4, but we’ll mention it from time to time throughout this series.


Metadata is data about data. It isn’t just something the NSA collects, it actually can make quick work of any search wherein you know what the file is about, but you’re just not sure of other properties.

When you take a picture or save a document or send an e-mail, there’s all kinds of other data that is recorded along with it, or that can be later added to it. Consider any typical photograph. While it seems logical that you could extract basic attributes about a digital photograph such as resolution, the date it was created, and other basic properties, you’d probably be shocked to learn that there’s a whole lot more ways you can describe that file.

As you can see, there’s a lot of information recorded in the file by default, stuff like exposure, ISO settings, the camera make and model, and much more. If you use a camera phone, it will likely record you location as well. The point being, there are a lot of vectors you can use to hone in on when conducting a search.

Also, if you scroll down further in the image properties, you can see that you can also add data about the photo.

All of this extra metadata can be very useful when you’re trying to locate and sort files using specific information. The problem is, you have to usually add the extended information yourself which can be time consuming and labor intensive.

For the purposes of this series, we’re going to focus on metadata typically found in files by default.

Advanced Query Syntax

In a nutshell, Advanced Query Syntax (AQS) is complex set of rules that you can type into the Windows Search. These rules adhere to four file parameters: properties, kinds, stores, and contents. We’re going to explain all of these in far more detail and give you some valuable examples in Lessons 4 and 5, but for the time being, we want to just give you a cursory overview of each.

File Properties

You’re probably at least passingly familiar with file properties, which describe a file in a number of ways. For example, the size of a file is a property, and so is the date it was created, modified, and last accessed.

File Kinds

Speaking of types of files, file kinds should be pretty simple to get your head around. Every file is a type, you have image files, video files, document files, and so on.

File Stores

Locations are known as “stores” and can include databases as well. For example, if you’re searching for an e-mail, you could search through your Outlook database or a specific Microsoft Office file in your Documents folder. Honestly, you could typically browse to a location in File Explorer, but this gives you the ability to search anywhere from anywhere without having to go to that specific location.

File Contents

Finally, you can search by the contents of a file, simply, keywords within a document, so if you remember a paper you wrote 20 years ago in college wherein you state “Shakespeare was the bomb,” you could find it quickly and easily using a search for a document (file kind) and its contents.

Search Indexer

The Search Indexer is a service that runs in the background and “provides content indexing, property caching, and search results for files, e-mail, and other content.” You can open the Task Manager and note the Search Indexer’s impact on your system.

It’s safe to say that unless the Search Indexer is actually actively crawling over your hard drive(s) and indexing content, it will have a minimal impact on your system, so you probably shouldn’t disable it. That said, if you’re keen on wringing every last bit of performance from your system, you can open the Services Management Console and permanently disable the Search Indexer.

For the purposes of this series, obviously the Search Indexer is absolutely necessary. We’re going to discuss how to fine-tune and extend the indexer in the next section.

Configuring and Extending the Search Indexer

Before we conclude today’s lesson, we want to take a moment to cover the Search Indexer, namely configuring and extending (add locations and file types) it.

You can configure the Search Indexer using the Indexing Options found in the Control Panel.

The indexer starts whenever Windows boots. The first time it runs, it will crawl your hard drive and index all the locations it is configured to look in. As you add or remove files, the indexer will automatically update so you’re not seeing results that don’t exist and you can find stuff that does.

The indexer will run at full speed when the computer is idle and slow when you’re using it, so if you want it index everything so you start getting complete results, then you will need to leave the computer alone so it can run to completion.

In the above screenshot, we see a fully indexed system as it might look by default. Obviously, if you don’t have Outlook on your system, you won’t see that but you should get the idea. Note, the “Users” folder will encompass all your special folders like Documents, Videos, Music, and so forth.

Let’s say, however, that you have other locations you want to index. In that case, you can extend the index to peer into archives and other stores of data. For example, let’s say you add an external drive with all kind of stuff that you don’t want to necessarily keep on your smaller system drive. Obviously, you want a way to find stuff on that drive quickly and indexing it is a perfect solution but the indexer won’t look in new locations unless you specifically ask it to do so.

To add a location, you will need to click “Modify” and a new screen will open showing you all your indexable locations. There you can choose any new locations you want to add.

Once you’ve added your location or locations, you can click “OK” and the indexing service will incorporate the new information.

Advanced Options

On the Indexing Options screen, you will also see an “Advanced” button. On the Advanced Options window, there are two tabs, Index Settings and File Types.

The Index Settings tab lets you attend to several things. You can have Search index encrypted files, which might constitute a security risk (because encrypted files are usually encrypted for a reason).

You can also have the indexer distinguish between words with and without diacritics. This means, for example, “naïve” and “naive” or “manana” and “mañana” are indexed separately rather than being lumped together in the same search result.

The “Rebuild” buttons lets you throw out the current indexer and create a new one if you’re experiencing any issues. Just remember, if you do this, you will have to wait for the indexer to finish its job before you can thoroughly search again.

Finally, if you want to move your index to a new location (such as to a better performing drive or one with more space), then you can do that using the “Index location” settings. Simply click “Select new” and browse to the new location where you want the index to reside. You will need to restart the service (or your system) before the new location takes effect.

Adding and Removing File Types

You can further extend the Index’s reach by adding new file types. To do this, you will need to click on the “File Types” tab, type the new file type’s extension in the box, and click the “Add” button.

Further, you can remove file types from the indexer by unchecking the box next to each one you want to exclude.

You can also change how files are indexed. If you want to index a file’s properties and contents, simply select each file type you want to affect and click the option. By default, most files will already be set one way or another. For example, Word documents will have their file contents indexed, while image files will not.

For the most part, you’ll find that every file type on your system are almost always already indexed one way or another.


Today’s lesson should have you pointed firmly toward tomorrow’s lesson on Start search, while acquainting you with concepts that you’ll learn about throughout the week. Your homework for today is to configure your index settings, options, and if necessary extend your indexer with locations you might want included. Remember, if you don’t like how the indexer is performing, you can always click “Rebuild” and start over, so go ahead and mess around without fear of harming your system!

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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