Microsoft Windows: How to best name and search for files

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. Can you recommend a file-naming strategy that would make files easier to find on my computer — not just for me, but for others in my office in case I get hit by a bus?

A. Finding a specific file on your computer can be a daunting task, so I understand your desire to address this problem. However, while adopting a clever new file-naming convention might help you moving forward, it won't do anything to make your previous tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of files easier to find. For this reason, a better option might be to employ one or more of today's advanced index search tools — two of which are described below.

1. Windows's index searching: As discussed in my February 2011 Technology Q&A item "Say Goodbye to Wimpy Searches," Windows includes the ability to search files almost instantly based on the file's name, path, and contents. For example, if you are looking for a file that contains an IRR calculation, but you can't remember the file name or the year you created that file, you can simply search for the phrase IRR. I tried this on my computer, and in about one-fifth of a second, the search tool returned a list of 1,406 files containing the phrase IRR, as pictured below.

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Because I knew the file I was looking for was an Excel file, I refined my search further by adding the phrase TYPE:XLSX to the Search box to display only those XLSX files containing the phrase IRR. Again, this search refinement took only a fraction of a second, and it trimmed the search results from 1,406 files to just 31 files, as pictured below.

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As a final measure, I applied a date filter to refine the search results to only Excel files created in the past three years, which whittled the list down to just six files, one of which was the file I was seeking.

As mentioned in my 2011 article, the key to using this type of index search technology is to turn on indexing for the folders where you save data files. This can be done in Windows 10 from the Control Panel screen by selecting Indexing Options, clicking the Modify button as shown in the screenshot below, and then navigating to and placing a check next to each data file folder you want indexed. (By default, Windows 10 automatically indexes all your Microsoft Outlook files and those in your Start Menu and Users folders.)

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Thereafter, the Windows search tool will index every word in every file (except for password-protected files), including file names, paths, and properties. Indexing enables you to search files using the same type of ultra-fast index search technology employed by internet search engines such as Bing, Yahoo!, and Google.

Because index search tools work so well, there is less need to organize data files in specific folders for search purposes. However, I do still organize my data files by year for backup purposes, as pictured below.

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This annual folder approach allows me to use an online backup service (Microsoft OneDrive in my case) to more easily back up my current-year data folder automatically (my older data files are manually archived off-site each year end). I also use my annual folder approach to continuously sync the data files on my Atlanta computer to my satellite office computer on Jekyll Island, Ga., using GoToMyPC. This approach not only provides an extra backup, it also enables me to travel seamlessly from one office to the next without having to transfer data files each trip. This way, my data are well backed up locally, off-site, and online.

2. The Everything search tool: As mentioned in my August 2013 Technology Q&A item "Everything," I also use a free search utility from Voidtools (voidtools.com) called Everything, which enables me to search my computer files by name, type, size, date, and other properties. I sometimes use this tool instead of the Windows index search tool when I know at least part of the file name I'm seeking. That's because, unlike Windows's index search, Everything does not search file content, making it easy to search file names only. For example, searching for the phrase AICPA using the Windows search tool returned 7,876 files (because the phrase AICPA occurred in either the file name, file path, or contents 7,876 times) whereas searching for the phrase AICPA using Everything returned only 337 files (because the phrase AICPA occurred in the file name only 337 times). Furthermore, Everything works as if all the files on your computer are contained in one gigantic folder, so it searches your entire computer instantly, which means you don't have to second-guess whether a given file is in your My Documents folder, Downloads folder, Desktop, etc. For example, I searched for an expense report from a business trip to Birmingham, Ala., by typing the phrase Birmingham in the search box. This tool instantly served up 10 data files containing that phrase in the file name. Thereafter, double-clicking the appropriate file name launches the file.

File-naming conventions: With today's effective file search tools such as the two described above, the specific file-naming protocol you use is not as important as it used to be, but it is still a good idea to follow certain file-naming conventions, as follows:

  • Consistency: Whatever file-naming strategy you use, it is probably wise to use it consistently throughout your organization.
  • File name lengths: Early versions of DOS limited file names to just nine characters plus a three-letter extension, which meant that Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect files were limited to just nine characters as well. Today, file names are generally limited to 255 characters, but using all 255 characters can make file names increasingly more difficult to view. You are probably better off limiting file names to about 32 characters or so.
  • File name parameters: At a minimum, the parameters you should include in every file name are the client name and file title. For example, the following five file names might make sense for your organization:
    • Hilda Marie Ltd - 2017 1040 tax return.pdf
    • Watson Company - 2018 income statement.docx
    • Specht Pharmacy - 2017 depreciation schedule.xlsx
    • Couch Leadership - 2018 budget.xlsx
    • Jackson Motoworks - 2018 org chart.xlsx
  • Forbidden file names and file name characters: Keep in mind that certain characters (such as *, ", /, \, :, <, >, |, ^, and ?) are forbidden in Windows file names. Additionally, while spaces and dots can be included in file names, names including only those characters are forbidden. Also, certain file names (such as con, aux, nul, prn, com1, or lpt1) are forbidden because Windows uses them elsewhere in its programming. Windows file names are not allowed to end in a space or dot.
  • Bread crumbs: To make files easier to find, you should consider embedding the file path and file name in the document's footers. For ­example, in Word and Excel, inserting the phrase &[Path]&[File] in the footer or header, as shown below, will print the document's file name and path in the header or footer to help others more easily identify that file's location.
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In addition, you might also consider adding properties to your files moving forward. For example, in Microsoft Word and Excel, you can select File, Info, Properties, Advanced Properties to display the Properties box shown below (for Word), where you can add detailed properties about your files. These types of details can make it easier to search for and locate files in the future.

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With more than a half-million Excel, Word, and PowerPoint files on my computer, there's no chance I'll ever take the time to go back and rename any of them, much less all of them. There is also no chance I'll ever go back and try to reorganize them into specific folders. At this juncture, my best approach (and probably your best approach) is to leverage today's advanced index search tools to help me find the files I want.


About the author

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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