How to refine search criteria for more efficient searching in Microsoft Outlook

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Finding an important email quickly is easy when you know how to talk to Outlook.

Microsoft outlook homepage
Image: IB Photography/Adobe Stock

Many of us spend a lot of time with Microsoft Outlook. That’s because there’s a lot to do, and many of us organize our entire day in Outlook. That’s why efficient searching is so important. “I couldn’t find the email with the bid process,” isn’t a good way to start a meeting. Fortunately, Outlook offers many ways to limit or broaden an email search.

SEE: Windows, Linux, and Mac commands everyone needs to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to improve search strings to get the most efficient results when searching for specific email messages. I’m using Microsoft 365 Desktop on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions of Microsoft Outlook.

How to apply a simple search in Microsoft Outlook

Outlook’s Search control in the title bar is the search tool in all windows. To start a search, click the control and enter a search string. Outlook will return a list of items that contain the search string or some part of the search string. By honing that search string, you can improve the results.

When you click the search control, Outlook displays a list of suggested searches based on your recent searches. To the left, you’ll see a dropdown that lets you limit the search to specific mailboxes and folders. This dropdown is available only when the search control has the focus.

The dropdown is the first stop for searching more efficiently. You can limit or broaden the search by specifying where to look. The current mailbox is the default. You don’t want to look in all mailboxes if you know the message you’re searching for is in a specific mailbox. Similarly, you don’t want to limit a search to one mailbox when you think there may be matches in other mailboxes, or even if you’re unsure.

How to apply Outlook searches more efficiently

Now let’s look at the search string possibilities. It’s important to note that Outlook scans email messages and attachments for the search string.

If a search string contains more than one word, such as Susan Harkins, Outlook will find all matches to Susan and Harkins, including Susanne, Susan Jones and Dan Harkins.

When searching for messages from a particular person, enter their email address. For instance, if you enter [email protected], Outlook will list any message that contains [email protected] in the:

  • To control
  • Subject control
  • Body of the message
  • Attachments

That’s a lot of places to search. To limit those results, add from to the search string as follows:

from:[email protected]

Doing so will list only messages received from Jane Doe.

If the Subject text is your search, such as “Team Planning Meeting Agenda for Review,” limiting the string to a few keywords will yield the best results. If you enter the full Subject text, Outlook will list every message that contains any of those worlds in the To and Subject fields, in the body of the message and in an attachment. A few better search strings are “Planning Meeting,” “Meeting Agenda” or even just “Review.”

A few more search rules to consider follow:

  • Outlook doesn’t consider punctuation.
  • Outlook returns only the first 250 items to match the search string.
  • Outlook doesn’t respond well if the search string includes more than one language. Results are hit or miss.

Beside textual search strings, Outlook also evaluates operators in a search string.

How to use operators correctly in Outlook

You’re probably familiar with operators such as AND, NOT, OR and so on. You can use operators to refine a search. When using operators in Outlook, you should always use uppercase letters. Table A lists the most common uses of operators and a few other reserved search terms.

Table A

Operator Search string Result
AND Susan AND Harkins Will return all items that contain Susan and Harkins. It won’t list items that contain only Susan or only Harkins.
OR Susan OR Harkins Will return all items that contain either Susan or Harkins and Susan Harkins.
NOT Susan NOT Harkins Will return all items containing Susan but not Harkins.
“” “Susan” Will match Susan, but not Susanne.
about about: “Team Meeting” Will list messages only with “Team Meeting” in the subject, body or attachment.
from, about from: “Susan Harkins” about: “Team Meeting” Will list messages only from Susan Harkins with “Team Meeting” in the subject.
subject subject: “Team Meeting” Will list messages only with “Team Meeting” in the subject.

Searching in Outlook has lots of possibilities. If there’s a field, you can search it simply by expressing it by field name followed by a colon. For instance, if you’re searching contacts, you might use the search string lastname: “Harkins” to list only those contacts where Harkins is their last name. With a little thought, you can refine search terms to yield the best results.

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