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How do you search a Gmail account like a pro?

If you’re anything like me, (a) my sincere sympathies, and (b) you’ve got a Gmail inbox with thousands upon thousands of messages stashed in it because you never know when you might need that email. Consequently, it takes a bit of searching. Here then, after years of experience, is how to search a Gmail account like a pro.

Search a Gmail account – the basics

Let’s start with the raw basics, the absolute first principles of search.

If you’re searching for a specific phrase in your Gmail inbox, such as “tax return”, make sure you put that phrase in quote marks. That ensures you’re only given results containing those two words together, rather than any email with the words “tax” or “return” in it, which is likely to be a far greater number.

One other basic tip: by default, you will only search your inbox. What if you want to search for a message you sent a fortnight ago? Click on the Sent folder on the far left, and in the search bar at the top you should see “in:sent” has appeared in the box. Now type your search term after that phrase and it will search your outgoing mail, instead of the inbox.

Search a Gmail account – advanced search

If your basic search has drawn too many results, it’s time to narrow it down. If you click on the little arrow on the right-hand side of the Gmail search bar, you will open the advanced search menu, which should look something like this:

Search a Gmail account

This lets you refine your search using a number of parameters, including who the message was sent from, who it was sent to and the time period in which it was received/sent. Filling in as many as these boxes as you can should result in far fewer results.

Search a Gmail account – search operators

If you’re a touch typist and find it easier to rattle out words than tick onscreen boxes, then you can use search operators to replace many of the functions in the advanced search box.

For example, if you want to only search emails that have an attachment, you can enter the following phrase into the search bar:

 has:attachment 

Now if you type the following into the search bar:

"tax return" has:attachment

You will only see emails containing the phrase “tax return” that come with an attachment – handy for finding the files from your accountant before that crunch deadline.

Other operators you can use include:

from: (to specify who the message came from)

to: (to specify who it was sent to)

subject: (to find words in the subject line)

in:anywhere (to search for a message in any folder – inbox, sent or otherwise)

after: (to search for messages sent after a certain date, for example after:2014/05/16 – note the reversed date order)

before: (same as above, except messages sent before such a date)

Note that you shouldn’t leave a space after the colon of any search operator. There’s a full list of operators on the Gmail support page.

Search a Gmail account – find a ‘deleted’ message

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Think you’ve accidentally deleted an important message? It’s easily done, especially on the mobile app, where you can get a little ‘swipe happy’ when scanning new messages.

The good news is Google doesn’t really delete messages for 30 days – it leaves them lingering in your Trash folder, unless you’ve specifically gone in there and deleted the message permanently.

Using the “in:anywhere” search operator should search messages in your Trash, but if you want to specifically scour the bin, you can either use the “in:trash” operator or click on the Trash folder on the left-hand side of the page before entering your search terms.

Note that there’s a difference between Trash – which is stuff you’ve deleted – and Spam, which is stuff Google thinks is junk.

If a message has apparently gone missing in transit, it’s always worth searching the Spam folder, in case Google has accidentally classified it as junk mail. It happens.

Search a Gmail account – find newsletters to unsubscribe from

Everyone’s mailbox is full of newsletters they did or didn’t sign up to and no longer want.

If you type the following operator into the search bar:

label:^unsub

You will return results of all newsletters and circulars that contain an unsubscribe link. You can now scan all those senders and unsubscribe from those that you no longer wish to receive.

Search a Gmail account – find photos

Trying to find some photos that someone sent you ages ago? You could use the has:attachment operator, but that will return all files, not only photos.

To refine the search, enter the following operator:

filename:jpg

This will only deliver emails containing photos in the JPEG format, by far the most common format for digital photos.

Now read this: How do I clear space in my Gmail inbox?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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