Shrinking the haystack: how to narrow search results in Slack

Filters, modifiers, channel search and more can help you find valuable conversations and context—fast

Image Credit: Pete Ryan

Before using Slack, you likely experienced the frustration of needing a file that was locked in a coworker’s inbox, or joining a project team and not knowing the context of previous decisions. Slack solves these issues by making all the files and messages shared in public channels accessible via search.

Search is the best way to locate kickoff documents for any project, help a new hire get up to speed quickly, or dig up the context for a decision made even years before. And if you get a handle on all the filters and modifiers for searching in Slack, it can be the fastest way to find that information too.

Writing the ideal search query

As with almost any other app you use in your personal or professional life, search in Slack starts with a target phrase. Are you searching an entire workplace history for something general, like “advertising,” or for something specific, like “Q4 advertising plan spreadsheet”?

Phrase searches can be hit-or-miss, because every word must appear in the messages and files containing them. If you get incorrect matches or too few results, try making the term more general by removing words and searching again, or try other words associated with what you’re looking for.

Messages, files and channels: your three search categories

While the first two tabs atop the Slack search interface—messages and files—are familiar, we recently introduced channel search as a third category.

This tab searches not only channel names that match your results but also channel purpose, previous channel names, and frequently discussed topics.

Narrow your search with filters

If you’re searching for a general phrase that returns too many results, try to remember at least one other detail about it. Do you recall:

  • Who said it?
  • What channels it might have been in?
  • The approximate date it was shared?
  • If it was a file, do you recall what kind of file it was (e.g., PDF, email, spreadsheet, image)?

On the right side of Slack’s interface, you’ll find a handful of helpful filters that correspond closely to these prompts. Click any of the options, or combine them, and your results will update instantly to more focused results.

For example, let’s say you’re looking for a message from your manager. Rerun your search and select your manager from the list of users along the side. If you remember that it was posted last summer, enter the date range June 1st to September 30th. If you know the file was a PDF, click the files tab and select PDF Files in the file-type option.

Quick tip: If your organization integrates a lot of apps with Slack, and you find too many of those updates in your search results (customer support tickets, for example), select the hide apps and bots filter.

Narrow your search with modifiers

There are additional search modifiers you can add to your searches, many of which mirror the clickable filters in the search sidebar. There are, however, a handful with special purposes:

  • has:star to see only messages or files you starred in the past
  • has::emoji-name: or has:reaction to retrieve only messages that got a specific emoji reaction or any emoji reaction, respectively
  • to:me to search only direct messages

Putting search tools into practice

Let’s say I’m preparing a presentation of customer stories for a company all-hands meeting and need the final design files for the images used in our 2018 FIFA World Cup story. A search for “world cup” in this demo Slack workspace gives far too many results.

I’m looking specifically for images, so let’s flick over to the files tab.

Our results narrow, but the images I need aren’t on the first page of these results. I know our art director posted them, so I’ll filter the search for only images and only from Alice Cho.

And like that, my 3,515 results went down to 454, then finally to six.

How other apps for Slack work in search

When you connect your Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and other cloud file services with Slack, files from those services shared in Slack are also indexed in search.

For example, in the aforementioned case study on event production for the World Cup, the phrase segments that were first produced in L.A. and then shipped to the International Broadcast Center on the outskirts of Moscow appears in the post. A search inside Slack’s own workspaces finds the exact draft document where it was written.

At Slack, we consider search such a key skill for employees that it’s taught in our new-hire onboarding sessions. We place new hires in a virtual escape-the-room game, where they have to use search, filters and modifiers to locate clues hidden in our Slack workspace. For many of us at Slack, there’s not a day that goes by when search doesn’t help us find what we need and move work forward.

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Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.