Email search is flawed

I use Outlook, Gmail and Mail on a daily basis on a wide range of devices as mail clients. Mail clients are used for three things in my life, to send mail, to read mail and to look up old mails to answer questions. The first two can be managed in all mail clients I have used but the problem often become visible when we look at the third. I have yet to find a single mail client that can provide me a search which gives me the answer I want in the first search. What would the perfect search look like you might ask?

If I am in a discussion with friends on what the name was of the inventor of orgone energy it is easy for any of us to fire up a browser on any device and search in Google for example. The query might be “orgone energy” and the answer will be given to us after we’ve entered the first word. Now, orgone energy is nothing we might ever discussed before and still the search engine understand what we are looking for and give us what we want.

Now let us look at a scenario where we are to find a mail sent to us containing the same information. I know that I can search for ‘orgone’ but if I want to search for a mail in Outlook the moment I want to question it, it question me right back. Do you want to search for the term ‘orgone’ in to, from, bcc, cc, subject or body of the mails? Well, I do not care! I want to get that mail I know exist which gives me the answer to who was the inventor of orgone energy! So I need to guess and right after that I get the next questions, do you know if the mail had an attachment or if it was send this or last yet etc.

Most desktop mail clients do just like this. Instead of indexing all information I might have they want me to create the subset of information myself to minimize the amount of data in which to find what I am looking for. Instead if they were going the route of Internet search engines, they would try to index as much information as possible in my account to be able to read the meaning of my query. It can be mails, contacts or direct communication.

Gmail from Google is the provider which has the best mail search functionality to date according to me. There are some parts they lack but it is the best one still when compared to the competition I’ve tested. However, it still does not understand what I am searching for fully. Let us look at a scenario.

Let us say that I am looking for a pdf that I was working on sometime a couple of years ago. I also know the name of one person I worked together with, Jessica. The natural search query in my mind for this is ‘pdf jessica 2010-‘. A hit would hold all of the three tokens somewhere in the contents that surround an object that is an email. ‘pdf’ can be a name, but we can guess that I mean the file type. Jessica can be a file type but we can guess it is a name and so on. The query can be read as “I am looking for a pdf on which someone called Jessica was involved. The mail should be from 2010 or later.”

Now before anyone say, well most mails reside on server so it can’t search there, let me stop you. Bandwidth of mail is not the problem for us in 2013, at least not where I am living. It would be perfectly fine if the mail client for the first time I performed a search went online, downloaded all mails on server and indexed them. Using that index it then never had to do it again. Problem solved. Bandwidth is not the problem here. The problem is that mail clients still are under the impression that mail is used today as it was in 1996 when we received five mails a week and only had mails for the last five months behind us.

Dear mail client providers, get us into the twenty first century already! Oh, and the inventor of orgone energy was Willam Reich and you can read more on him here.

After I had written this article I searched for other people who shared my concerns for mail search and I did find a great post by Peter Reinhardt on the same topic. Recommended reading!

Another tip I found while reading forums of the topic was to re-write mail headings to ones that you know yourself. I did actually test this out in Outlook to both rewrite all those “Re: ” mails to a heading which actually made sense but for me it just introduced another layer of complexity since it instead break the mail threads.

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