Using Metadata Effectively in OS X

A Long Time In The Making

Not quite a year ago I wrote a feature on LifeHacker talking about the use of Metadata in place of a folder-based organization scheme. Since then I’ve received many emails and inquiries asking for more on the subject. Inevitably I’ve responded with short answers and the promise of a forthcoming post here on The Apple Blog to satiate all the interested parties. I’m here to tell you, that the time has finally come my friends.

I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with the system, trying new things, combining tools and workflows, and on and on over the year I’ve been working with the idea. So as I’ve been pondering how to approach the piece I wanted to write here on TAB, I’ve decided that doing it in parts will probably work out best. I’d like to say they’ll come out weekly, but there’s a ton of stuff clogging this brain of mine, and it may be more like bi-weekly, so just an fyi on that.

Enough of the pleasantries, eh? Let’s get started with the first installment of Metadata as a Filing System. In this part I’ll be covering the basis of my idea, the tagging structures and best practices that I’ve found work best (at least for me), and the basic goals of using this system.

Some Background to Get Up to Speed

When Tiger launched in 2005 it brought with it Spotlight for unparalleled searching capabilities. A large factor in this amazing new tech was the ability of the operating system to leverage metadata in files. What is metadata? It’s information about information…Ok, a better explanation: Metadata is the term used for details about a file. For instance, who created the file, when, how large is the file size, and so on.


But the best part came with the addition of Spotlight Comments. Accessible through the Get Info screen of any file on OS X, the Spotlight Comments field gives the user free-reign for creating customized metadata (referred to as ‘tags’ from here on out in this article). Think about tagging in the mainstream sense. Just about everyone has seen it in action with the advent of Web 2.0. uses it for ‘categorizing’ bookmarks, flickr allows you to tag your images, and many blogs provide tag clouds of the many blog post categories offered within their pages. So we translate that thinking to our files and the way we organize them on our hard drive. spotlight comments

I’m fairly certain your hard drive is teeming with files, most likely in your Documents folder, just like mine. I’ll venture further, to guess that within that Documents folder you’ve got several more folders – maybe a ‘Letters’ folder for all your correspondences, a ‘txt’ folder for all your txt notes, a ‘work’ folder for business stuff, and so on and so forth. Maybe those folders have more nested within them…you get the idea. You’ve got the typical folder hierarchy that every semi-organized computer user has had since the computer shipped with a hard drive larger than a megabyte.

So what happens when you’ve got a letter that you wrote for a business proposal? Do you file it in your ‘Letters’ folder, or your ‘work’ folder? Or maybe a ‘Letters’ folder within your ‘work’ folder… How do you remember which place you put it in? (I know you could create an alias in the location you didn’t store it in, but humor me here – I’m not that well organized anyway!) Well the options metadata gives us, allow for us to file the letter in a general place and tag with with both ‘letter’ and ‘work’ so we can find it later based on the tag, rather than where we may have put it.

When I first started this project, I moved all the files and folders in my Documents directory, into a folder called ‘pretagging’. From there on out anything that would normally have been filed in my Documents folder hierarchy, was just dumped into Documents and left to marinate with nothing but a metadata tag (or two or three). This approach really forces you to commit to the idea of using metadata as a filing system, because then when you look at your Documents folder (rather than just searching the tag(s) in Spotlight), you just see a heaping mess of files to wade through. Great motivation to make it work, eh? So if you’re planning to play along at home, this is a great way to jump right into the deep-end.

Guidelines Are a Must

spotlight genericSo Spotlight makes all this possible because these items are then completely searchable on your drive. Great. But before we get too carried away, we need to decide on a useful tagging structure, or set of guidelines. If you don’t, your tags will end up looking much like my initial foray into bookmarking, where there are 1-off tags everywhere. Not good, and not useful for searching.

It’s extremely important to have a plan in mind before you start tagging your little heart out. You don’t necessarily have to decide on the specific tags you’ll be using, because that will change and evolve over time. But keeping in mind a set of guidelines for how you’ll tag your files is the key. I like to stick to singular terms, ‘letter’, ‘project’, etc rather than trying to remember, “Did I use ‘letters’ or ‘letter’ last time?” Then you either guess right and end up ok, guess wrong, and have a 1-off tag that could ruin your search results later, or you waste more time digging to see what tag you need to match. All of these are time-wasters, and who amongst us has time to waste anymore?

So decide if you’re going to use singulars or plurals for your tags. There will of course be times when a tag you choose is most common in the plural, such as ‘keys’, or ‘taxes’. Just something to keep in the back of your mind.

Another point to consider in your guidelines is how granular you want to get with your tagging practice. So maybe you tag some files as ‘project’, but what happens when you get too many project files from different customers? This is where it gets free-form and up to you on how you handle it. You could do something like ‘project’ and ‘clientname’, or just go for broke with ‘clientnameproject’. Figure out what’s easiest and most comfortable for you.

spotlight specificThe last thing, and probably the most important – in my opinion – is a prepending symbol for your tags. The GTD’ers use the @ sign most of the time, so I started with that. But I found that Spotlight effectively ignores the @ symbol and returns less than exact results. As an example, ‘@project’ and ‘project’ will both return the same results in Spotlight. Which is to say that they return anything in Spotlight’s index that contains the word ‘project’. That leaves a lot of wading through stuff to find just what you want. With some experimentation I landed on the & sign as one that Spotlight didn’t ignore. So now a query on ‘&project’ returns only the things that match that syntax exactly – no extraneous data or files that will slow you down. Sure you can do a Spotlight search using quotes around your @project search term, but that’s extra keystrokes, and frankly, I’m too lazy for that. So I use the & sign to prepend my tags. You can play around and find something else that may work for you, or just use the one I found.

These ideas lay a decent framework for your tagging scheme. Obviously what works for me may be different for you, so figure out your own system – if you use these guidelines to do it, you’re much more likely to find success in using metadata for your filing system.

So What’s The End Game?

For me the purpose behind all of this was to see if it was really a good alternative to the traditional practice of using folder hierarchies. I wanted to see if I could still locate my files in this manner, and if I could, was it any faster? So I suppose efficiency is the name of the game when it comes time to measuring your success.

This is where it becomes a gray area on whether or not the metadata hits the mark. If you just use the tools that OS X offers (those being Spotlight and using the Get Info screen for each individual file) then there’s no way this method stacks up. The performance gain comes in using 3rd party apps and utilities. I’ve played with many of these, and tried several combinations to determine which seem to work the best. If you’re even a casual reader of The Apple Blog, you won’t be surprised that Quicksilver is at the hub of these tools.

But as I mentioned at the start of this post, there will be a few parts to this piece. Those tools – and the best ways I’ve found for using them – are topic for a forthcoming article.

Moving Forward

There’s still a lot to come on this topic. I hesitate to say just how many installments I’m planning, because I feel like there’s enough to write up for a handful of posts. But for now I’ll venture 3 more parts to this saga. Minimum.

Amongst these future posts I’ll be covering the 3rd party tools that make the metadata system a really useful alternative, and how to put them into action for you. I’ll be putting together one of my weekly screencasts to demonstrate the system I’ve settled into. I think that will give a good feeling for what this system is capable of if you stick with it and truly own it. And finally (at least for now), I’ll talk about where I’d like to take this metadata filing scheme in the future. Essentially some ideas I’ve had for really automating things so that my computer works for me…But more on all this in coming weeks.

Q And A

There are certainly going to be questions abounding from this article. As always, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments below. However if the questions tread heavily on forthcoming parts of this piece, my answers will likely be short ones, if at all – I’m not ignoring the validity of said questions, I just feel they’ll be more easily accessible if they’re available in the body of each article (rather than buried in the comments).

In fact, maybe I’ll make each week following one of these pieces, a post full of answers to the questions posted in the comments. I’ll have to think on that, depending on how the reaction to this post goes over. Guess we’ll all be surprised…