Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips

Tim Brookes 16-02-2015

Spotlight has been a killer Mac feature for years, with Cupertino schooling Redmond in the art of desktop search. Since the arrival of OS X Yosemite What's New In OS X 10.10 "Yosemite"? OS X is evolving both in terms of looks and features, and just like last year's Mavericks update, Yosemite will be another free download. Read More it’s been refined further with access to more sources of information than ever before.


You can access Spotlight from any Mac by hitting command+spacebar, or by clicking on the magnifying glass icon in the top-right corner of your screen. Here are a few tips to help you find more on your Mac.

Now With Internet

OS X Yosemite heralded a new age of Spotlight – one that has access to the Internet and can perform more intelligent queries than ever before. It also takes pride of place in the centre of the screen and allows you to search the web (with Bing), news headlines, maps, iTunes, the App Store, what Apple deems “top websites” and movie showtimes (in some regions).

Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips spotlight internet

Another included service you can use to quickly look up facts and figures is Wikipedia, which features abridged versions of full articles highlighting some of the most sought-after information for those respective searches. Think things like capital cities and population for countries and plot summaries for films.

You might find that Wikipedia (and other web queries) take a second or two to show up, so have patience when searching. If Wikipedia doesn’t show up as an option, I’ve found typing your search term followed by “wiki” does the trick – e.g. “dog wiki”.


Do More Than Search

Apple didn’t just power-up Spotlight with a load of online features, they also improved its offline abilities as well. One of the best additions in OS X Yosemite is the ability to use Spotlight as a converter –  input your conversion as you would in Google and you’ll see the result right there in the middle of the screen.

Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips spotlight temp

It works well for simple weight and measurement conversions, like “10kg in pounds” or “6km in miles” or “29c in f”. It’s also an effective way of looking up currency conversion rates, like “10 usd in aud” or “100,000 kronor in gbp” – but be aware that not all currencies are supported (so no Bitcoin then).

Spotlight can also help you do instant math without launching the calculator. Just enter the calculation you would like in the usual format – “7*7” or “49/7” are two I hope you’ll never have to type. More complex calculations like square roots and trigonometric functions save you a trip to the calculator.


Word definitions are another trick. Type your word and scroll down to the Define field.

Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips spotlight definition

While many of these tricks might seem simple, particularly as they can all be performed with Google, performing the query on your desktop has the added advantage of not being distracted by advertising, interesting search results and ensures you can still work offline.

Use Booleans, Metadata, & Add Criteria

It helps to know what you aren’t looking for when trying to find that elusive file, particularly if your query returns a lot of search results. Simple boolean operators AND, OR and NOT can be added to your query to include or exclude items. You can also use the minus symbol (-) to exclude items.


These are particularly helpful when paired with metadata attributes, like kind, author, date, modified, created and so on. As an example, a search for “created:1/1/15 NOT kind:messages” would list all files created on your Mac on New Year’s Day, except for email and chat messages.

Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips finder criteria

While this is the quickest way of searching, you can be more hands-on by typing your search then choosing Show All in Finder. In the Finder window that opens, click the plus “+” button in the top right to specify criteria for your search. When you’re done you can keep it as a saved search using the Save button, if you like.

Specify What’s Indexed & Hierarchy

Relax – we know you don’t want your extensive back catalogue of Power Rangers episodes to show up when searching for dope beats in front of your friends, and so does Apple. Head to System Preferences > Spotlight and under Search Results you can turn off various features, like Movies or Images. To change the order in which your results appear, click and drag an item to wherever you’d like it to appear (though we’d always recommend leaving Applications at the top of the stack).


Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips spotlight hierarchy

If you have folders that you’d rather Spotlight doesn’t look in, head to the Privacy tab and specify them using the plus “+” button in the bottom-left of the screen.

Use Keyboard Shortcuts

We’ve said it many times before and we’ll say it again: keyboard shortcuts are key to getting things done quickly. The arrival of the graphical user interface (GUI) might have made computers more accessible, but it did little to speed up common tasks.

Here are a common list of Spotlight shortcuts, note that you can navigate the entire search interface using your arrow keys:

  • cmd+spacebar – open Spotlight (can be changed under Spotlight preferences).
  • enter – open search result.
  • cmd+down/up arrow – move to the first result in the next/previous category.
  • cmd+r – display current search result in a Finder window.

Note that you can also open a Finder window with the search field selected by hitting option+cmd+spacebar; handy for creating quick saved searches (can also be changed in Spotlight preferences).

Install Flashlight Plugins

If you’re still yearning for even more Spotlight goodness you can take a leaf out of Justin’s book and install Flashlight plugins Add Superpowers To Spotlight With This Unofficial Plugin System Bring Google, Wolfram Alpha, the weather and just about anything else to Spotlight. Read More . This (very) unofficial tweak, described as “a horrendous hack” by the developer, adds a range of  information sources to Spotlight, including weather results, Wolfram Alpha’s knowledge database and the ability to translate text.

Search More Efficiently In Mac OS X With Our Top Spotlight Tips spotlight plugins flashlight wolfram alpha

You can even add Google to Spotlight, including Google Image Search, and create your own Flashlight plugins using Automator.

Privacy Concerns? Disable Spotlight Suggestions

There are a lot of things that aren’t immediately obvious about Spotlight, like the fact that by default all search queries are sent to Apple. This doesn’t include local search results, but it does include the current location of your Mac if you have location services enabled. Bing gets in on the action too, as Apple has stated:

Searches for common words and phrases will be forwarded from Apple to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. These searches are not stored by Microsoft. Location, search queries, and usage information sent to Apple will be used by Apple only to make Spotlight Suggestions more relevant and to improve other Apple products and services.

To stop this, head to System Preferences > Spotlight and disable Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches. Note that web services (like Wikipedia, suggested websites and movie showtimes) will no longer work once you have done this, and queries will remain local to your machine.

You might want to hold off doing that, depending on how often you use those online features and whether you trust Apple. Their privacy policy states:

Before it answers, Spotlight considers things like context and location while protecting your privacy by using an anonymous identifier that refreshes every 15 minutes … Unlike our competitors, we don’t use a persistent personal identifier to tie your searches to you in order to build a profile based on your search history. We also place restrictions on our partners so they don’t create a long-term trail of identifiable searches by you or from your device.

To trust or not to trust? It’s your call.

A Brighter Spotlight

With Yosemite, Spotlight is more useful than ever before – provided you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy to get the most out of it. When you get used to it, Spotlight becomes an integral part of your Mac – launching apps, finding common files and more.

Did you know Spotlight could do all this? If not, there might be a few more OS X Yosemite features you have missed 10 Useful OS X Yosemite Features You Might Have Missed Ever since OS X Yosemite came out, everyone has been looking to see if they can find the features not so widely reported by Timmy up on his stage. Read More .

How do you use Spotlight to get things done faster on your Mac?

Related topics: Mac Launcher, OS X Yosemite, Spotlight.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Phillip Joujon-Roche
    November 3, 2016 at 4:30 am

    I use Easyfind. It's faster than Spotlight, and shows the path to the file or folder.
    And I can direct it to examine any internal or external hard drive.