Spotlight - a built-in search engine on Mac - how to use?

Default search function on Mac called Spotlight - how to use?

Experienced computer users are aware that search engines work more efficiently when used correctly. Functions that fulfil your requests when expressed in one or two words are very useful. Windows operating system users are familiar with the "Run" function, and Apple also offers even more features within Spotlight. Comparing the two, the Windows tool opens programs and documents when the path is known, whilst Spotlight does not even require the destination or an accurate name. The Mac feature is essentially a built-in search engine, a text-based Siri alternative, that responds to any query entered and searches for all associated results.

For example, you can start typing the name of your application, without having to finish typing the whole name - Spotlight detects the application and displays information about it to launch that particular app. All you have to do is hit Return. You can also use it as a quick calculator. Furthermore, this search engine contains not only local capabilities, but also offers extensive Internet content. Therefore, you do not need to launch a web browser to check the weather or other basic information. Below, we describe the functions and shortcuts of Spotlight to create a clear view of its functionality.


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Spotlight keyboard shortcuts

To start, if you seek to improve your skills whilst working with Mac and Spotlight, shortcuts are one of the main features you should become familiar with.

Basic Spotlight shortcuts

  • Command and Spacebar to open Spotlight menu
  • Command, Option, and Space to use Spotlight through Finder
  • Escape to clear Spotlight search box
  • Escape twice - close the Spotlight menu

Usage and navigation keyboard shortcuts

  • Return - open first item in the list
  • Arrow Up and Arrow Down to navigate search results
  • Command and Return - opens the location of first item in Finder
  • Command and I - shows information of search item
  • Hold Command and hover over search result - shows the path/location of search result
  • Command and Arrow Up or Arrow Down to jump between categories in search results
  • Command and L - jumps to the definition of search item
  • Command and B - opens web browser with the search item entered in Spotlight search box
  • Command and C/V - copy/paste functions, same as in Finder

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Basic usage of Spotlight

Mac's built-in search engine can be accessed by two methods. In the list of shortcuts, you may have noticed that you can access Spotlight with the shortcut of Command and Spacebar. Alternatively, you can click the magnifying glass located in the menu bar at top right corner of the window. As mentioned before, however, using keyboard shortcuts allows you to work much faster.


Begin with instant launch of applications. Start typing the name of app - Spotlight will detect installed software and show it as the first item in the search list. Hit Return or double-click on the item and it will launch immediately. A useful feature is that you do not need to close or minimise any running applications or windows to reach the shortcut.


This way you can reach not only apps, but also panels from System Preferences without opening the particular folder. Files are reachable through Spotlight as well - just type the name of file. If there are image type files, you will see a thumbnail on the right while scrolling through the photos.


The biggest advantage of Spotlight search is that files are recognised not only by a name, but also by searching inside the doc type data for the phrase typed in the search. This function helps to locate documents when you cannot remember its name or where it was stored. Simply click on Show all in Finder or use the shortcut of Command and Return and you will see a highlighted result in Finder. Another useful function is a quick calculator - you simply type in the mathematical condition/formula and Spotlight will display the answer.


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Search files by using Natural Language

Since Spotlight is a text-based Siri alternative, you can use natural language while searching. In other words, you can type in specific queries and achieve matching results. For example, type 'docs from March 2018' and you will see all text based files within your disk storage in that month. This works with various types of files, including apps, images, videos, etc.


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Open file in Finder through Spotlight

We have mentioned the option to open files in Finder through Spotlight. The shortcut of Command and Return will open the highlighted item in the Finder, while the option at the very bottom of the list will open all matching items in the single Finder window. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut of Command, Option and Space, which will apply the same function as 'Show All' in finder.


Results shown in Finder can be filtered using filters by simply clicking the (+) button in the top right corner of the window. From here, you can select not only filter options, but also add additional queries. Another useful feature is the save option, which allows you to add this particular category into Finder's sidebar. Using this, you can reach the results even faster.


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Access Internet content through Spotlight

As mentioned, Spotlight also works similarly to web browsers. The previous steps related to local capabilities, but we now describe some options related to the Internet. Firstly, Spotlight can check the weather in your chosen location. Just type 'Weather' to enable location services on the Mac - you will see a report about existing weather and forecasts for your area. If you want to check the weather in other locations, simply type a more specific query such as, for example 'weather in buffalo NY'.


Spotlight can find information relating to many other queries via the Internet. For example, sports scores. Type 'NHL scores' and you will see a current schedule and several scores from recent games. You can ask Spotlight to define anything by starting your search query with the word 'define' followed by any word to check a quick definition from the web. There are a number of other features hidden within Spotlight such as stock prices, currency conversion, online videos, and even results from Maps. For example, if you are looking for the location of a nearby business. Spotlight may seem a little more complicated than Siri in macOS, but it contains many similar features and can improve your computing skills. Furthermore, Apple adds new and more powerful functions with each release.


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Adjust Spotlight results and order they're given

If you require more accurate Spotlight results, you can adjust content shown within this tool. To manage the results, open Mac's System Preferences and select Spotlight. In the Search results tab, you can enable or disable categories displayed. Under the Privacy tab, you can add exceptions for specific folders.


In this way, you can protect various collections from other users of your computer, and also prevent items such as ebooks from cluttering up results. When you become familiar with Spotlight, you will probably notice that ebooks dominate most results (keywords are detected through content). Adding the entire folder where you store ebooks might solve this issue.


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Video Showing how to use Spotlight on Mac

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Tomas Meskauskas

I am passionate about computer security and technology. I have an experience of 10 years working in various companies related to computer technical issue solving and Internet security. I have been working as an editor for pcrisk.com since 2010. Follow me on Twitter to stay informed about the latest tech news or online security threats. Contact Tomas Meskauskas.

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