Why Can’t Gmail Search?

Hey! There is a followup post here!

Google, the King of Search.

Gmail, the darling of geeks everywhere for mail.

Links: Gmail; Yahoo; Cyrus-IMAP; Squirrel Mail

I am my family’s IT Director for our house (in her day job my wife has been an IT Director, so it is occasionally an ironic situation). Long ago, I used a Cyrus-IMAP server in my server closet to provide email for both of us; it worked really well. I still have pages of notes on how to compile and set it up under Debian; it was a bear, but once set up it worked for years without a problem. Via SSH, we could both get to our mail from work; you could even throw a tunnel to Squirrel Mail for web-mail access. Life was good.

Then came the seductive invite to Gmail; I forget how I got it, but that early invite made my geek palms sweat. Soon I was reveling in threaded conversations, archiving with abandon. That was a while ago; at this point I have been using Gmail/Google Calendar for a long time, having ditched the in-house IMAP server after moving my wife’s email to Gmail. My iPhone is fairly happy with Gmail as well.

But there’s this little problem, why may drive me away from Gmail entirely:

Gmail’s search functionality sucks rocks.

Seriously. Why is Gmail’s search so primitive? Isn’t search one of Google’s core competencies? I understand that email search != web search, but come on, it really stinks. To illustrate:

I had previously bought some Zaggs’ Z.buds for my iPhone. When they died, I needed to the email receipt for my purchase in order to get them replaced. No problem. Open up Gmail, search for “Zags”. Nothing. (Shouldn’t be any; I spelled it wrong) “zbuds”. Nothing. “zag”. Nothing. “headset” (reaching now!). Nothing.

I give up. I go to my Yahoo! Mail Account, which gets a copy of all my email. Total disorganized mess of thousands of un-tagged, un-foldered messages. Search for “zag”. Bang, it finds the the substring in Zagg. How helpful. Back to Gmail, search for “zagg”, boom, Gmail finds it.

Curious, I troll around the web looking for information on how to substring search in Gmail. Surely it is just a matter of learning an incantation in the search box, right?

Nope. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way search for anything less granular than words. Apparently, Gmail indexes on words alone.


People’s names for me are a disaster; I consistently remember bits of people’s names and can’t find their emails without scrolling through lists of emails.

Labels? They are nice, but they are not really a search tool, unless you are going to tag each email with ten labels and manage hundreds of labels. No more useful than folders for searching.

This has gone from a minor niggle to a regular hassle for me; I just don’t remember things in word-level detail anymore. Fragments, that is what sticks in my brain. Gmail’s lack of substring searching is really beginning to look like a big hole to me. Can’t they add an albeit slower version of search which supports wild-carding? Something you only get via an advanced options dialog or some such? Maybe it isn’t allowed for filters; I don’t know what the server load issues might be. But for interactive use — that would be great. Right now, search is lame. And as I get more emails in there, it becomes more and more of an issue.

Every time I want to use my hazy recollection to find a half-remembered email from three years ago, it becomes a bigger issue. I shudder to think what will happen in ten years.

So that Yahoo! Mail Premium account for $20 a year is looking better now.

Google is the king of search, yet Gmail search sucks. Who’d a thunk it?

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74 Comments on “Why Can’t Gmail Search?”

  1. Jan Paricka Says:

    Have you ever tried to search on sites like digg.com?

  2. designbygravity Says:

    Yes, but it seems to me that email search is fundamentally a more important problem; email tends to be full of things that you will need years later. Contacts, phone numbers, address, random links, purchase receipts, etc.

    If you can’t find these things years later, email’s utility is severely curtailed.

  3. Girish Says:

    Exactly my experience. The search is awful in finding mails with similar words.

  4. mike Says:

    I have had this exact thought and how ironic that a search company can’t add a good search engine to their own email product… even yahoo has a decent sub word search for goodness sakes. I almost left gmail because of this and have had friends that actually quit using gmail because of it.

  5. Sherrod Says:

    I don’t use GMail, but I do use Apple Mail. Its search is atrocious as well. It does, at least, do substring search really really well. But compound searches? Forget about it. Of course this is in mysterious contradiction to the (formerly) excellent Spotlight search. All this to say it’s not just GMail. All mail clients are severely lacking. And you’re totally right — labels do not count as innovation.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Totally agree with you that it isn’t just Google; most mail clients have relatively limited search. Just seems really stupid that Google’s search is so lousy.

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  7. telemachus Says:

    @Sherrod: All email clients suck, but some suck less (TM). Mutt + Mairix = email searching joy.

    • designbygravity Says:

      @telemachus Most of your problems are eventually solved if you can get to grep at some level.

    • Joey Hess Says:

      Funny that you mention mairix — it is a word-based email search index, so you can’t do general substring searches with it either.

      • telemachus Says:

        You can’t do as much as you can with grep, certainly, but you can do substring searches. See the sections in man mairix about, well, substring searches.

        I just did this search, for example, and got 85 results: mairix b:per=2

        The b limits the search to the body, per= makes it a substring search and the (optional) number allows for N number of errors. (If I remove the 2, for example, I get only 53 hits.)

  8. carnegie Says:

    usually the “in:anywhere keyword” command gets me perfectly to the results.

    However, the Android Market search is as crippled as the gmail search, you describe (I don’t know why either).

  9. Blargho Says:

    You should try the Search Autocomplete gmail lab. It helps a lot when searching for people.

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  12. Dom Hodgson Says:

    the worst part is phone numbers, If I type Sean 079 or Sean 079*, Google should be able to work out I want the damn mobile number for SEAN!

  13. Matt Cutts Says:

    Just to echo Blargho, the Search Autocomplete lab in Gmail is really helpful. It makes finding contacts trivially easy. That doesn’t help with substrings, but it does help with finding someone that you wanted to email. Here’s the info:

    Search Autocomplete
    by Ibrahim B, Chris P, and Andrew C

    Provides search suggestions for contacts and operators as you type in the search box.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Matt, the Search Autocomplete is actually really useful for contacts, but isn’t a general solution.

      Often I’ll tell people to email me their address; sometimes this is the first contact I have by email with them (my kids’ friends parents for example).

      Trying to find that email a couple weeks later, when the address and name are in the body of the email can be a bear.

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  15. […] Why Can’t Gmail Search? Google, the King of Search. Gmail, the darling of geeks everywhere for mail. Links: Gmail; Yahoo; Cyrus-IMAP; Squirrel […] […]

  16. altek Says:

    Exactly! I have ALWAYS thought this…Gmail search sucks!! I have had to scroll through so many emails at times, why cant they use their web technology for email…

  17. phlog Says:

    You are right, they should improve there search. Still light years ahead of outlook, which crashes every now and again, just to do a simple search.

  18. Dlask Says:

    No offense, but have you ever tried not being a moron? If you ordered earbuds, why the fuck did you search headset? Did you try THAT search in Yahoo with success? I’m not really a Google fanboy, but come on. Zagg and zag aren’t real words. It’s a name you should remember, considering you bought products from them. Maybe when I go to get a register my car, I’ll put the make down as Fort, because I have fucking down syndrome. Did you try using the web search button right next to fucking email search? Google would have told you that you were being an asshat, because 3 results down, it shows you 3 results for ZAGG, the fucking shit you were looking for. This shit should have never made it onto oursignal, you’re just a fucking stupid prick who was probably paid off by Yahoo to support the only fucking stupid advantage they have over Google.I know, let’s pay $20 a month for some slow piece of shit that doesn’t co-operate. OR LET’S USE THE FREE SHIT THAT DOESN’T SUCK. Fucking asshole, you made me type this all out drunk.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Good to know reasoned discourse is alive and well on the internet.

      • Abomaniss Says:

        Wow, I thought his rant was pretty funny, but it’s strawman in the face of the premise – GMAIL SEARCH SUCKS.

        -A loyal G-mailer of many years who agrees.

        • designbygravity Says:

          The rant was funny enough that I actually used “have you ever tried not being a moron?” in conversation a few times when the person as being a real PITA.

          So, you get what you get on the internet.

  19. jose Says:

    I disagree,

    I never had problems with email search, but that’s me, maybe it’s that when I search I try to use commons sense, and don’t expect google to know everything.

    Sorry, I can’t understand your argument.

    • designbygravity Says:

      It’s cool to disagree; your experience is different than mine. I have enough emails over enough time that finding anything has become a needle in a haystack.

      But I still think that substring search is a reasonable expectation.

  20. Sachin Says:

    Thank you so much.. I think that reading you article helped me a lot..I was searching one old ppt file in gmail and was not able to get it for the past few days ..something struck my mind and I changed the search keyword and I found it …thanks for writing this article….

  21. Sarah Lam Says:

    Talking about Gmail search, I never really use them. I guess even Google has flaws.

  22. carmen Says:

    im going to go out on a limb and say that precalculating levenshtein distance indices for all the emails on gmail was left out on a time/space tradeoff. the irony is, if you use your own machine its not a problem. google doesnt have 6 billion machines, just a few hundred thousand? viva the “Real” computing cloud.. your local PC

  23. lace wigs Says:

    gmail doesn’t have to be the best, it just has to be known. people don’t care as much about quality as they do about the long-term popularity of computer applications. google will only run into trouble somewhere along the line if it is proven that it has organized a monopoly.

  24. Michael R Says:


    Thank your recent contact with ZAGG, where we are Zealous About Great Gadgets! My name is Michael and I appreciate the opportunity to assist you.

    I am sorry to hear that you are having a problem with your Z.buds. If you would like a replacement under the 1 Year Manufacturer’s Warranty, we would be happy to provide you with one.

    I am happy to inform you that we have recently changed our warranty request process and no longer require that you submit the receipt if you still have the original product.

    At your convenience you can request warranty replacements online, 24-7. To get started, please click the following link and follow the instructions:


    If you would like any additional help with this process, please let us know.

    Thank you for choosing ZAGG. We appreciate your business!

    All the best,

    Michael R
    Team Lead, Email/Live Chat Team
    ZAGG Inc.
    3855 S 500 W STE B, SLC, UT 84115
    801.263.0699 (o)
    801.281.3458 (f)
    Nasdaq BB Symbol: ZAGG

  25. […] Design By Gravity Things work that way because the universe wants them to « Why Can’t Gmail Search? […]

  26. Ben Says:

    I too am extremely frusturated with gmail/google apps mail search function. I have 2 e-mails with the word ‘Andrew’ in them, both have instructions on sending money to bank, 1 e-mail has additional info I need, they both have the same label.

    When I search only 1 e-mail appears, I just started with google apps e-mail 2 weeks ago but I moved over ~ 3500 e-mail from my gmail account. I never used gmail account it was just a backup while I used outlook. I switched to google because my hard drive crashed and the backup of my .pst was corrupt (never want to have to go through that again) but not being able to find important business e-mails when you are on the phone with a client or a bank that you have been trying to contact for months instantly is beyond frusturating.

    I honestly found the outlook search to be more accurate.

    I definitely think a sub-string search lab would be great, kinda figured it didn’t exist because it would be slow due to amount of mail people store on google servers but the fact that the basic search doesn’t work reliably for a whole word spelled correctly to me is inexcuseable and disappointing…

    • designbygravity Says:

      Ben I totally agree with you regartding how important functional search is.

      Check out my follow on post with readers’ response and further discussion: https://designbygravity.wordpress.com/2009/08/28/gmail-search-readers-respond-and-a-proposal/

    • Ben Nicolas Says:

      I figured out why my search didn’t work.

      the e-mail that appeared was sent to me

      the e-mail that didn’t appear was sent from me

      so basically if you do the same search from the “Sent Mail” as you do from “All Mail” you get different results? huh??? How is that intuitive, I thought the beauty of conversations that all back and forth on a given topic was kept in the same place??…

      when I do my search from within the label that both e-mails were labeled with the e-mails do _not_ appear, so bottom line is that when you run the search feature the “e-mails that you sent” do not get searched

      in my mind this is a bug that if fixed would significantly improve the end user experience for many gmailers out there who struggle to find old e-mails

  27. Ben Nicolas Says:


    1) I think its pretty cool when Matt Cutts from Google comments on your post, and
    2) I do have the autocomplete feature turned on, yes it is a great lab, I love that. But the existing search missing whole words being searched for in 1 label subset still bums me out…

    • designbygravity Says:

      Hey Ben, I’d love to see if I could replicate your experience regarding two emails with the same word and Gmail search only finding one.

      Could you email me (designbygravity -at- gmail.com) a redacted version of the two emails? To see if I can replicate it? If not, fine, but it would be fascinating.

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  30. happy Says:

    great post! I read your other post too where you are replied to responses…

    i googled “search on gmail sucks” and nothing came up for search within gmail which surprised me because it really does suck.

    when i searched for “search on google doesn’t work”, your post came up in the results. guess it pays to be polite 🙂

    thanks for writing this. its great that Googlers like matt cutts are taking notice. Hopefully something will stir.

  31. bjw Says:

    I have had the same problem using gmail, to the point that I am considering not using it for my key mailings. I have even put words and strings of words in that are accurate, and gmail does not find it and yahoo does. Does the company even know there may be a problem? bjw

  32. BoneSmuggler Says:

    Yep, a year later and Gmail search still sucks! How can it not find a single proper noun in the subject or body?? I really don’t understand how or why it is so bad…but it is.

  33. You should try CloudMagic for super-fast Gmail search.

  34. Ms Pacman Says:

    Now it can, gmail is the best!

  35. Joe Says:

    Gmail search still sucks

  36. Ryan in São Paulo Says:

    September 27 2012 and Gmail still, as the author so eloquently puts it, SUCKS ROCKS.

  37. Damodar Says:

    I’m writing you from 2012.
    21 of December is in 3 days…. I think Gmail staff just waiting and if everything pass well than they fix this damned search. Otherwise I don’t see any reason to keep for 4 years same stupidity in not fixing this bug…

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  41. Rom Says:

    GMail still sucks (unfortunately some of my customers insist on using Gmail, which we have to support for them)… Zimbra search is freaking awesome though.

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  46. I’m using Gmail for over eight years and the search has never failed me, often helping me recall conversions from years ago. So how we can say terrible ?

  47. baskiria Says:

    I moved to outlook.com for that only, gmail search seriusly sucks. I can find things in my 7 years old emails with outlook. Hate every other bit of it, but gmail just doesn`t work.

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  50. jono Says:

    I Googled GMAIL search sucks because im so frustrated… I used quotes to pull up an email and it returns 70+ emails… OK…. Ctrl F…. 0 instances of my query in all the emails… WTF

  51. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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  53. doomedtxTJ Says:

    Sadly not much has changed in 7 years. I got here by searching “why is gmail search so bad,” which was auto-completed for me. That should have been my first clue that it hasn’t been solved yet. Thanks for the good post.

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  57. stepfordconsulting Says:

    nothing has changed in 10 years,,,,, gmail search is really weak.

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