How to Search File Contents in Windows

By | April 20, 2022

It can be difficult to keep track of all the data on your computer, which is why the built-in Windows search function is so useful. But have you ever found that it doesn’t always improve the results you want?

This may be because you are trying to find text in the file. By default, Windows will not see the internals of every single file when it performs your search. However, there is a way to enable this.

Not only can Windows search be improved, but there are third-party programs that might offer a better search experience and we’ll cover that as well.

Search File Content Using Windows Search

Windows 10 is better at searching files and folders than older versions. Usually great at finding the files you need. However, there may be times where the file you are looking for does not appear.

This is because, by default, Windows search does not look at the contents of any file types, nor does it scan files that have not been indexed. Here’s how to change both things.

About Windows File Index

Windows indexes the catalog of information about your files, such as metadata and the words in them. This allows your computer to find things faster, it doesn’t have to scan each file individually, but instead can look in the index.

Many applications on your system use indexes. File Explorer is the obvious place to be, but Photos, Groove, Outlook, and Cortana all use the index as well.

The index is updated automatically when the files on your computer change. This will take up less than 10 percent of the indexed file size (so a 100 MB file will have an index of less than 10 MB).

While these methods will make your file search more useful, it’s worth noting that they can slow down the speed at which you’ll get your results. The more file types whose contents are indexed and the more folders to search, the longer it will take. If you notice a significant slowdown then it may be necessary to reduce your indexing and only enable more obscure searches when needed.

Change General Search Options

There are some common options you can change to improve file indexing and searching.

Indexing Options

First, we’ll look at how to change some system-wide indexing options.

Open the Start menu, search for Indexing Options, and select results. In the window that opens, click Advanced and stay in tab Index Settings.

Under the header File Settings, you can enable two options:

  • Indexing encrypted files
  • Treat words that are similar to diacritics as different words

The first will add the encrypted file to the index. Encryption can help protect your files, so you probably don’t want them indexed.

The second refers to diacritics, which are also known as accents. It was a small symbol or glyph that appeared on some words like café. Once you enable this, “cafe” and “cafe” will be treated as different words. This option is useful if you have multiple files in multiple languages.

When finished, click OK to save your changes.

File Explorer Options

Next, we’ll change how search operates in File Explorer.

Open the Start menu, search for Change search options for files and folders, and select results.

Here you can enable the option when searching for non-indexed locations. This is:

  • Include system directories (on by default)
  • Include compressed files (ZIP, CAB, etc.)
  • Always search for the file name and content (this may take a few minutes)

Choose what you want to enable, but the third one is very important if you want to search files and their contents carefully.

When finished, click OK to save your changes.

Search In More Locations

Windows indexes locations like your Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos by default. If you like, you can add more locations to the index.

To do this, open the Start menu, search for Indexing Options, and select results. This will open a window showing you all the currently indexed locations.

To add something to this list, click Modify > Show all locations. Use part Change selected locations at the top click the arrow to open the drive or folder, then check the box to index it. When finished, click OK.

Search In More File Types

By default, Windows only adds file contents of certain file types to the index.

To change it, we need to use part Indexing Options again. Click Advanced and switch to tab File Types. Here you will find a list of most of the file types on your system, down to the most obscure. If the file type is not listed, enter it in the field Add new extension to list and click Add.

If you click a common file extension from the list, such as doc, see below How should this file be indexed? part. You will see that the files are indexed with the option Index Properties and File Contents. This means that Windows search will look into DOC files, and other file types tagged like this, when you perform a search.

Choose a file type that is more obscure and will likely only be set to Index Properties Only, which refers to metadata like filenames rather than whatever is in them.

If you know what type of file you’re looking for, find it in the list and switch it so it’s set to Index Properties and File Contents. When finished, click OK.

Search File Content Using Third-Party Programs

These third-party programs do not specifically look for file contents. If Windows search is not for you, then you can use a third-party tool called Agent Ransack. It’s not the only program available, but it’s potentially the best because of its system compatibility, feature list, and lack of a price tag.

Agent Ransack comes from Mythicsoft and is a free alternative to their FileLocator Pro program. You can search your entire system for content text and you can also specify parameters such as file size and modified date. It has a very simple and easy to use interface, which is quite possibly easier to navigate than the actual Windows search.

This tool will tell you exactly what line your search keyword appears in a file (along with how many times it’s contained in it) and it will give you file search results very quickly. Of course, if you’re searching your entire system then it might take a while, but you can narrow down the folder search if you need to cut out some of the excess.

These methods will help you search your system thoroughly, allowing you to dig deep through the data set and locate the specific file you need. Whether you prefer the built-in Windows search or a third-party alternative, both will get the job done.

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