May 5, 2010
Are you using Search Folders in Outlook yet? If not, now may be a fantastic time to get acquainted with this powerful feature. This article discusses why, and shows you one Search Folder you can create that may greatly speed your ability to find mail, every day.
What are Search Folders? Search Folders are virtual folders that consolidate mail from various places into one folder-like view. They are a bit magical, in that they don’t move or duplicate mail; rather they display a virtual copy of all mail that meets selectable search criteria.
Microsoft has included Search Folders in all versions of Outlook since version 2003, but few users take advantage of them—and that’s too bad as they can be very powerful. If you look in the lower left of your Outlook Navigation pane folder list, you will see a set of pre-delivered Search Folders, as in the figure above (you may need to scroll to see that group in your folder list, and you may need to click to expand the group).
The Real Power of Search Folders
While the pre-delivered Search Folders can be useful, the real power of Search Folders comes when you create your own, and that’s what we are going to do below—we are going to create one custom Search Folder that allows you to view and search all your mail through one single folder.
Why might you want to do this? Well, have you ever looked for a recent e-mail by visually scanning your folders, but not been able to find it? If so, you ended up having to look through your Inbox, and then maybe in the Sent Items folder, and then maybe in several other folders, opening and scrolling through each one at a time. Sometimes the mail you want is part of a send-reply conversation and you are not sure if the mail you seek is something that you sent (so in Sent Items), or something they sent (in some other folder). You could of course use an indexed search engine; but for recent mail, scanning a folder visually is sometimes the best way to find something.
Creating the All Mail Search Folder
So the Search Folder I show below creates a virtual folder that allows you to easily view one long scrolling list of all your “recent” mail—even up to year’s worth—no matter where the mail is actually stored in Outlook (with one caveat discussed below). It will make it much easier to find your mail when you are not sure where to look. It’s virtual, so it does not duplicate any mail; it just gives you a very convenient single-folder view of all you mail, collecting it from all the folders it may be distributed in. I call it the All Mail Search Folder and using it is a fantastic way to find mail.
The All Mail Search Folder is Useful Because:
- You can easily do a visual search of all your recent mail in one list, even after it has been filed. You can view and scan them chronologically if you wish, just like the Inbox; or you can click on the From header and easily see all your mail from a single sender; again, no matter where it is actually stored.
- If you are still filing mail into multiple topic-named folders, this custom Search Folder allows you to see all that mail in one long list too—no matter how split up it is across your actual folders.
- If you have not filed out of the Inbox for a while, and so are not sure whether to search there or in your files, using this Search Folder allows you to visually search for it all in one place.
- Using Instant Search (Outlook 2007 or 2010) in this folder automatically searches all mail on your mail store; you don’t have to do two passes and click “Try searching all mail items” on the second pass to add other folders.
- You can see full conversations, including mail in your Sent Items folder. That makes finding mail in long send-reply conversations easier, and it saves space as compared to creating copies of all sent mail in the Processed Mail folder (per pg 245 of my book 2nd Ed.); I no longer recommend that option—this new custom Search Folder is much better.
One Caveat. Search Folders only consolidate mail from one mail store, and that’s an important limitation for a few of you. A mail store either means a mail server (Exchange), or a mail file (PST). That’s not an issue if you are using my recommended folder configurations where all recent saved mail is on your main mail store (e.g. in the Processed Mail folder on Exchange or on your primary PST for non-Exchange installations; see Lesson 5 or Appendix A of the book’s 2nd Ed.). However, if you split your recent mail across mail stores (e.g. you place your Inbox on your Exchange server but you place your recent saved mail in a personal folders file—a PST), then this search folder won’t include mail on that PST; nor will it include archived mail. But for most of us, that’s not an issue when looking for recent mail.
How to Create the All Mail Search Folder
- In the Navigation Pane folder list, right-click the Search Folders header, and select New Search Folder…
- In the New Search Folder window, scroll to the very bottom and double-click the “Create a custom Search Folder” item at the bottom of the list.
- In the Custom Search Folder window that opens, click the Browse… button.
- Clear the checkbox in the very top-level item, and then add check marks to all the next-level folders where you store your mail—that’s most likely your Inbox, your Sent Items folders, and possibly the Processed Mail folder, and maybe more folders if you use a lot (see figure below). Make sure “Search Subfolders” is selected at the bottom—that way you do not need to open each checked folder and select all their subfolders—they’ll be included. Click OK.
- Back at the Custom Search Folder window, in the Name field type “All Mail Search Folder”.
- Click OK, and then click Yes at the error dialog saying that you have not specified any criteria (we don’t want to). Then click OK at the New Search Folder window, and you are done! You can now see the All Mail Search folder in the Search Folder list.
Since the All Mail Search folder is selected by default after you first create it, you’ll now see the Search Folder contents in the main mail list window at the right of the folder list. Note that Outlook may churn a while as it builds this folder’s contents from your various folders, but that only happens the first time you create it; you will not need to wait like this again in the future—it is updated automatically from now on.
Also, the folder initially opens with mail grouped by source mail folder, which is not very useful; so click on the Received column to see an Inbox-like date-based sorting.
From now on, if you are looking for an old mail item and you are not quite sure where it is, click on the new All Mail Search Folder in your folder list, and do your search there. You are much more likely to find what you are looking for, and much more quickly.
Place it in the Favorite Folders pane
Since the Search Folders group is located a bit low in your folder list, and since your folder list may be large, the new All Mail Search Folder may be hard to locate quickly. So I recommend, after you create it, you drag a link to this new Search Folder to your Favorite Folders pane; that way it’s easy to get at quickly. The Favorite Folders pane (called Favorites in 2010) is the little sub-pane at the top of the Navigation Pane (see figure below). By the way, if you do not yet use this Favorite Folders pane, then you should try it—it makes finding key folders in your folder list much easier. I drag a link to all my main folders there including my Inbox, Sent Items, Processed Mail, and even Deleted Items; you may want to do that too. Here’s how mine looks:
If that sub-pane is not visible at the top of the Navigation pane, then go to View menu, then to the Navigation Pane sub-menu, and then select Favorite Folders at the bottom of that menu (Favorites in 2010).
That’s it! Start using this new All Mail Search Folder today.
Other Facts about Search Folders
Using this custom Search Folder changes my opinion somewhat about using multiple topic-named folders. I am referring to my writeup in Lesson 5 of the book. There I assert strongly that using many topic-named Outlook folders to file mail can be a major waste of time. But this new Search Folder changes that somewhat. I still regard filing into many multiple topic-named folders to be too slow to be practical for most people (unless you use add-in software like ClearContext). However, I now admit that finding mail in those folders can be greatly improved with this new Search Folder.
The power of this new All Mail custom Search Folder can be used in other ways. In next month’s version of this Outlook Productivity Newsletter, I’ll show you how to use AutoArchive to implement an automatic mail retention policy (automatically deleting old mail, selectively) so you can meet your corporate retention rules, should you have to do that (this idea courtesy of Donald Cappaert). The All Mail custom Search Folder is what makes this practical. More on that then.
And finally, it may be interesting to note that this search folder technology is what runs “behind the scenes” in your To-Do Bar task list, and in the To-Do List folder inside the Tasks folder. This explains why these lists collect “tasks” from so many locations. See pg 348 in the Outlook book 3rd Ed. for more discussion of this.