Mac Spotlight Search tips and tricks

Spotlight is a system-wide search functionality built into Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Macs that lets you find a wide variety of items and files on the system without having to navigate through its various menus. On the Mac, in particular, Spotlight Search is exceptionally useful as it can help you find pretty much all kinds of items and can even let you perform different operations on the system, granted to know how to use it effectively.

Mac Spotlight Search tips and tricks

IMAGE: Apple

Spotlight does this by creating an index of all the different items and files, including documents, pictures, videos, applications, and system settings on the system, which allows it to function like a selection-based search engine that pulls up results for all the different kinds of queries you make.

Besides finding and launching apps, Spotlight also lets you perform calculations, look up definitions of words, convert units, and find items using natural language search, among other things.

Mac Spotlight Search Tips and Tricks

Assuming Spotlight is the default search app on your Mac, the following are a few tips and tricks to get better at performing searches on your Mac.

1. Invoke Spotlight Search Quickly

One of the basic yet essential Spotlight tricks is to use a keyboard shortcut to invoke Spotlight Search from anywhere on the system. While the default way to do this, preferred by most users, is to click on the magnifier icon in the menu bar, using a keyboard shortcut — Command+Space — makes the process a lot quicker.

2. Search Apps by Their Initials

Most of us find an app on our Mac by either entering its full name in the Spotlight Search window or entering a part of it for Spotlight to find a match and return the appropriate app. While this works just fine, there is a much quicker and easier way to do this, which involves searching for an app using its initials. So, say you want to run Sublime Text, rather than typing “Sublime Text” or “Sublime”, you can query “ST”, and Spotlight will pull up the app for you.

search apps by their initials

3. Perform Calculations

Spotlight Search makes performing calculations on a Mac extremely easy: you simply type the equations you want to solve in the Spotlight Search window to get the results without having to open the calculator app. It is, however, only possible to do basic calculations here.

4. Define Words

Although there are various dictionary apps (and also Google search) to look up meanings of words, Spotlight saves you a few steps and puts the same functionality at your fingertips. So you can simply invoke the search and type “define”, followed by the word you want to look for meaning, and Spotlight will return its definition.

find definitions of words

5. Convert Units

Much like calculations, converting units is another useful functionality that you get with Spotlight Search. To use it, enter a value-unit pair that you want to convert along with the unit in which you want the result. For example, if you need to convert 10 km to miles, enter “10km to miles”. Besides converting units, you can also use Spotlight Search to convert currencies, although the exchange rate it would use might not be real-time.

6. Filter Spotlight Search Results

By default, Spotlight Search helps you find items across a broad range of categories like applications, bookmarks, contacts, folders, music, etc. However, if you want to declutter the results or do not want to see results for specific categories, Apple lets you disable Spotlight Search results for such categories.

To do this, open System Preferences and go to Spotlight. In the Search Results tab, uncheck the box next to the categories for which you do not want to see Spotlight search results.

filter spotlight search results

7. Exclude a Folder From Spotlight Search Results

Similar to filtering Spotlight Search results by preventing item indexing from specific categories, you can also exclude specific folders on your Mac to prevent Spotlight from searching for items in them. You might want to do this to avoid unnecessary (temporary files) from being indexed, which can sometimes lead to irrelevant results.

To do this, open System Preferences and select Spotlight. Click on the Privacy tab and hit the plus (+) sign at the bottom right. Navigate your way through storage to select the folder from which you do not want to see results in Spotlight and select Choose.

8. Search Specific Kinds of Files

For times when you want to find a particular file type on your Mac, Spotlight Search offers the option to modify search parameters to increase your chances of finding the correct file. You can do this by typing out the file name and appending “kind: format_type”. For example, if you want to look for a PDF file with the name “sample”, you will enter “sample kind: pdf” to find the particular file.

search specific kinds of files

9. Search With Boolean Operators

In addition to using search operators for advanced search filtering, you can also use boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) for complex search queries. For example, if you want to find a PDF file named “sample” that was created on, say, March 1, 2021, you need to enter “sample kind:pdf AND 1/3/2021” into Spotlight search to find it on your Mac.

10. Clear Spotlight Search Quickly

When you make a query on Spotlight Search — irrespective of whether you act on its result or not — you will notice that the query remains in Spotlight even when you invoke Spotlight next time, requiring you to clear it before entering another query. You can, of course, do this by hitting the delete key. However, there is a more efficient way of doing this, which involves using keyboard shortcuts (Command+Delete or Esc) to clear the search window immediately instead of performing multiple keypresses.

11. Track Flight Status Live

Apple allows you to search for live flight status right from the Spotlight Search bar, so you can avoid having to open/visit flight-tracking apps or websites for the same. To find a flight’s live status, all you need to do is enter the flight number of the flight you want to track, and Spotlight will show its live status.

track flight status live

12. Search Items Using Natural Language

Spotlight Search supports natural language search, which relies on algorithms to make sense of the words (in your queries) in the right context and serve you with relevant results accordingly. Using natural language, you can look up a lot of different items on your Mac.

For example, you can type “unread emails” to view all your unread emails, query “photos from march” to find all the photos (including screenshots) from the month of March, or type “documents I created yesterday” to view all the documents you created yesterday — the scope of use is limitless.

Here are a few more example use-cases of using natural language to make queries on Spotlight:

  1. Find the latest match score of your favorite team/club: type the name of a team to find its score update.
    Eg: man utd vs liverpool
  2. Find the weather at your location: enter weather city_name to find the current weather situation of that place.
    Eg: weather mumbai
  3. Find an article/video on a website/YouTube: type your query explaining what you are looking for and on which website. Eg: best gan chargers techpp
  4. Find live price updates for a stock: enter the ticker symbol of the company stock of which you want to know the price.
    Eg: TSLA
  5. Find nearby shops/eateries/theatres: look up nearby shops/eateries/theatres etc. in your locality.
    Eg: theatres near me
Note: Click on the images to check out the full resolution version hosted on Flickr

13. Find Results on the Internet

If you are not satisfied with the results for your Spotlight Search query, you can look up the same search term on the internet right from Spotlight. To do this, with your query entered into the search field, press Command+B, and Spotlight will look it up on the internet using the default search engine on your Mac’s primary (default) browser.

14. View the File Path of a File

When you search for a file on your Mac using Spotlight Search, it returns the result along with a few details like the file format, file size, and date of creation. It does not, however, display the path where the file is present on the system. But, you can do this by selecting the file with the arrow keys and pressing and holding the Command key.

15. Essential Spotlight Search Keyboard Shortcuts

Apple offers a few different keyboard shortcuts for Spotlight Search to help you navigate your way better through the search results.

Here is a list of all these shortcuts:

  • Command+space: to open/close Spotlight window
  • Return: to open a result
  • Command+R: open a file in an app or Finder
  • Option+Command+Space: open a Finder window with the selected search field
  • Tab: to view the preview area
  • Up arrow: move to the previous result
  • Down arrow: move to the next result
  • Command+Up arrow: move to the first result in the category
  • Command+Down arrow: move to the last result in the category

Finding Items on Your Mac Efficiently With Spotlight Search

By incorporating the tips and tricks mentioned above in your searches, you should be able to find files on your Mac more efficiently and perform a bunch of other app-specific operations without having to open those apps.

Besides, if you still find Spotlight Search lacking in functionality, you can use Alfred for a powerful and customizable search experience on your Mac.