Putting Spotlight under the spotlight

Between September 2005 and July 2011 I was a regular contributor to MacFormat in the UK.

Whereas I’m posting the published articles for my MacWarehouse writing with the MacFormat ones I’ve decided to post the text as submitted, including any comments that I included for design. I am, however, allowing myself a few small edits for clarity.

The particular one is my tenth column, written in June 2006. This is presented purely as a historical record as much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime.

Putting Spotlight under the spotlight

When Apple launched Mac OS 8.5 back in 1998 one of the headline features was a technology called Sherlock which was designed to search inside files for content rather than what it appears to be now, which is a collection of poorly supported and rarely used channels of web information which can be found elsewhere and done far better. At the time a number of developers released plug-ins to allow Sherlock to search inside their application’s files. Sherlock presented the user with a list of search results that were ranked in order of the likelihood that the result was the one that the user wanted. Sherlock was really well received and Apple even went so far as to enable web sites hosted on AppleShare IP to use Sherlock as a search engine.

Sound familiar?

Just like Sherlock; Spotlight is capable of searching inside files and returning a list of results ranked in order of importance. Just like Sherlock; developers have released a number of plug-ins to allow Spotlight to search within their files. Just like Sherlock; OS X Server can now use Spotlight as a search engine for a web site that is hosted on it.

So is Spotlight just a modern, OS X, version of what Sherlock was for Mac OS 8.5-9.2? Not at all, Spotlight can do all of the above and much more.

The key difference between Sherlock and Spotlight is that Spotlight searches metadata as well as the file’s content. Metadata is data about data. In other words Spotlight can also the characteristics of a file and not just what is in it. You can search for files of a certain type, e.g. presentations or movies, files that were changed within the last week, files that a specific person emailed to you and even photos that were taken with a specific model of camera. Spotlight can search the keywords that you tag your pictures in iPhoto with and you can add your own keywords to any file by adding your own Spotlight comments in the file’s Get Info window.

You can refine your search to types of files by typing kind: before you enter your search term. So to search for pictures of your cat Fred you would type kind:image Fred or if you had put together a Keynote presentation about Fred you could type kind:presentation Fred. If you knew that you had put that presentation together some time this year you could further refine your search by typing kind:presentation date:this year Fred. You can get a complete list f keywords and date ranges by searching Mac Help for spotlight keyword.

One thing that Sherlock could do that Spotlight can’t is to search the web for answers. These days people tend to use a search engine like Google for that but it is possible to search Google from within Spotlight. Google Importer from Caffinated Cocoa Software (who it seems are now defunct so I’ll remove the URL) is a Spotlight plug-in that allows you to search Google at the same time as searching you Mac.

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