There are few things more maddening than trying to track down an email you received some time ago; you may have a faint recollection of who sent it to you or what information it contained, but if you don’t have a clear path to it, it can cost you minutes—or even hours of searching.

There are many ways to overcome this. The proactive strategy is to improve your email productivity and master your inbox organization by utilizing labels, markers, stars, and other Gmail features to sort your emails into categories. But if you’re already dealing with a lost or hidden email, that doesn’t help you much.

Take a moment to remember that Gmail is a Google product—and Google is the master of search. If you haven’t relied on Gmail search in the past, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. It’s far more than just a keyword-based search engine; through the use of Gmail search operators, which modify your search, you can get much more satisfying Gmail search results.

How to Use Gmail Search Operators

Using a Gmail search operator is easy. All you have to do is click the search box, and type the operator before and/or after your query, which may be a keyword, phrase, or email address. Some search operators also stand on their own. You can use a single operator to modify your search, or string together multiple operators to get even more specific results; use whichever combination the situation warrants.

As an example, you might try something like the following:

from: example@gmail.com is: read “TPS report”

I’ll dig into these specific operators in a moment, but this example would call up all emails from example@gmail.com that are currently read, with the exact phrase “TPS report” somewhere in the content of the email.

Gmail Search Operators to Try

Try using these search operators to find the rogue email you’re looking for:

1. By keywords.

If you’re looking for the most basic type of search, you don’t have to include any operators. For example, if you know there’s an email with a specific word or phrase somewhere in it, or if there’s a topic you’re interested in searching, simply type that phrase into the search bar and go. For example, you might search for “lunch” or “TPS report.”

Gmail Search by Keywords

2. Exact words and phrases.

Those of you familiar with basic search operators for Google search will be pleased to know that you can search for specific phrases the same way in Gmail. All you have to do is include quotation marks (“”) around the intended phrase. For example, searching for “lunch at Marco’s” will show you any emails with that phrase, but no emails that contain just the word “lunch” or just the word “Marco’s.” Be aware that you can use these quotation marks in combination with any other search operator, in case you need to search for something specific within another set of parameters.

exact words phrases

3. By sender.

If you want to look for emails that were sent by a specific person, just use “from:”, followed by the person’s email address. You’ll get some automatic suggestions based on your first few keystrokes when you type it.

by sender

4. By recipient.

You can use the same formula when you’re looking for a specific recipient, by including “to:”, followed by your contact of choice.

By recipient

5. By subject line.

With this operator, you can search for emails by the contents of their subject lines. Use “subject:” followed by a word or phrase you’d like to find. All emails that contain all or part of your search in the subject line will be presented to you. Gmail will judge each message’s relevance to the best of its ability.

By subject line

6. By multiple senders/recipients.

If you want to pull a list of emails from multiple different potential senders, the easiest way to do it is with the “OR” operator or { } brackets. For example, if you wanted to view both emails from sender1@gmail.com and sender2@gmail.com, you could use “{from: sender1 from: sender2}” or “from: sender1 OR from: sender2”.

By multiple senders/recipients

7. Excluding content.

If you want to find content that specifically doesn’t have a particular word or phrase, you can use a “-“ symbol. This is useful if you want to filter out common results. For example, if you could search for something like “project X -status” to filter out any emails that are merely status updates about the project (which, let’s face it, aren’t very valuable on their own).

Excluding content

8. Contextual content.

You can also use search operators to search for content based on its context and positioning in the message. With the operator “AROUND”, you can search for terms that occur around other terms. For example, you could search for “coffee AROUND today” to search for coffee invitations you sent out with the hopes of a same-day meeting.

Contextual content

9. Labeled or unlabeled.

With the “has:” search operator, you can filter your search results based on whether or not the messages have labels. “has: userlabels” will show you all emails that have at least one assigned label, while “has: nouserlabels” will show you the unlabeled ones. This is most useful when used in combination with other operators. Do be warned, however, that only individual messages are labeled—not the entire conversation.

has labels

10. By specific label.

If you’re looking for messages that fall specifically under one label, use “label:” followed by the label you’re searching (such as “label: Urgent”). This is best used with other operators; otherwise, you can pull up the individual label to peruse it top to bottom.

By Specific Label

11. By attachment.

You can search only for messages that have an attachment with the “has: attachment” search operator. No messages with attachments will be displayed.

By Attachment

12. By file name.

The “filename:” search operator can be used to search for emails that have an attachment with a certain title, or a certain type of attachment. For example, if you remember an attachment has the word “money” in it, you could search “filename: money”, or if you remember it’s a PDF, you could search for “filename: pdf”. The new Gmail makes it easier to spot attachments from a distance, but this is still important to know.

By File Name

13. By drive attachment.

If your business uses G Suite and frequently sends files from Google Drive, you should know there are several search operators for specific Drive attachments. “has: drive” will show you any emails with any Drive-related attachment, while “has: document” is specific to documents, “has: spreadsheet” is for spreadsheets, and “has: presentation” is for slideshow presentations.

By Drive Attachment

14. By YouTube inclusion.

When you’re trying to track down that hilarious video your coworker sent you, you can use “has: youtube” to show only emails featuring an embedded YouTube link.

By YouTube inclusion

15. By mailing list.

If you remember that the email came from a specific list, you can use the “list:” operator. For example, if you’re getting notifications from info@company.com, you can use “list: info@company.com” to find them.

By Mailing List

16. By multiple keywords.

If you want to group multiple independent keywords together in a single search, the best way to do it is with ( ). For example, if you’re looking for any emails that contain references to either Godzilla or Mothra, you could include (Godzilla Mothra) as part of your search.

By multiple keywords

17. By folder (or anywhere).

The “in:” operator is designed to help you find emails in a specific folder, though you can also use the “anywhere” modifier to search throughout your entire Gmail account. For example, you might add “in: Spam” or “in: Trash”, or when you get desperate, “in: anywhere”.

By folder (or anywhere)

18. By importance, star, snoozed, read, or unread.

Though technically these all count as separate search operators, they all serve a similar function: helping you find emails in specific sections of your Gmail account. Use the “is:” general function in combination with these conditions to track down emails in specific areas. For example, “is: starred”, “is: unstarred”, “is: snoozed”, “is: read”, and “is: unread” are all valuable to these ends.

starred

19. By CC or BCC addresses.

Sender and recipient searches won’t apply to the CC or BCC field. To search these areas, you’ll need a separate search operator. There’s one for each: “cc:” and “bcc:”. The only exception here is that your “bcc:” search won’t allow you to find messages that you’ve received when you were the one BCC’d. You also can’t use this to circumvent someone else’s BCC and find out who they secretly copied on the message; you’ll have to avoid embarrassment some other way.

cc

20. By a specific time period.

There’s a set of four search operators that all help you find messages that were sent or received during a specific time period. They are: “after:”, “before:”, “older:”, and “newer:”. “Older” and “before” are practically the same, as are “newer” and “after.” Use whichever set you can remember. The date format does matter; follow the YYYY/MM/DD format to ensure you get the best results.

by a relative time period

21. By a relative time period.

You can also run a more casual search with the operators “older_than:” and “newer_than:” to find an email that was sent before or after a given time. Use these in combination with numbers and letters to inform it how old the baseline message should be; use “d” for day, “m” for month, and “y” for year. For example, “newer_than: 2m” would call up messages that have come in during the past two months, and “older_than: 1y” would show messages more than a year old.

time period

22. By address of delivery.

Though it may seem functionally identical to a recipient search, you may find a need to search for a delivery address, rather than an intended address. If you do, use “deliveredto:” followed by a contact to find emails formally delivered to that specific address.

deliveredto

23. By category.

The “category:” search operator will help you find emails belonging to different categories, like Social and Updates. If you’re using this search operator by itself, I recommend you adjust your Gmail settings to arrange these categories in tabs at the top of your inbox, so you can access them with a click. Otherwise, use it in combination with other operators.

Category Search

24. By message size.

There are a few different ways to search for a message by file size. If you use “size:”, you’ll pull all messages with attachments or content that make them larger than the size you type in bytes. If you use “larger:” or “smaller:”, you’ll be able to search for larger or smaller file sizes than the size you type in bytes. You can also use abbreviations to search for different values; for example, “larger: 15M” would display any messages with file size greater than 15 MB.

message size

25. By ID header.

By far the most technical and least accessible to the average Gmail user, you can use “Rfc822msgid:” to search for a specific message-id header. Let me know if you ever make use of it.

message id

Establishing Filters

You can improve your productivity in the future by taking advantage of specific searches you’ve conjured. When you’ve applied a specific combination of search operators, you can use this opportunity to set up a “filter.” Click the dropdown arrow near the search box, and then click “Create filter.”

Gmail Filters

From there, you’ll have a variety of options. Choose one or more actions that you’d like Gmail to take for emails that fit this description in the future; once established, you’ll have an automated workflow that takes care of sorting or modifying your emails on your behalf.

Gmail Filter Options

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