Advanced search for file collaboration

Shared digital working spaces used to be about browse, now it's all about search

Over the years, I’ve worked on a lot of projects that required shared folders and documents. Never have I worked on a team entirely happy with their system.

In the beginning—on management consulting teams—quality of life and productivity came from highly organized file systems with consistent and dictatorially enforced naming conventions (e.g. yymmdd_filename_version_author haha oof). Team members needed to execute perfectly to maintain a high quality of life. Any time somebody misplaced a file or forgot to name something properly, another teammate would suffer.

Today most teams I work with collaborate with Google Drive. It’s easier than ever to create a document and make it available to collaborators. But more documents and more collaborators makes it harder to enforce strict conventions. This makes the “is there a document on XYZ” or “where is document ABC” slack ping a common productivity eating conversation.

We’re mid-way through a transition from a browse file retrieval model to a search file retrieval model (and maybe after that a recommend model).

  • The browse model is navigating through a tree of folders logically and finding the thing you want based on clear expectations of how things are named and filed away. This works pretty well for a small team with a few important documents they’re collaborating on. A consulting team is the best example.

  • The search model is using the search bar and advanced queries to sift through any number of unorganized files.

Being mid-way, we have many people complaining about poor organization of folders and wishing things were easier to browse through. The happier people have found ways to reliably search for the things they need.

Some examples of basic advanced search that I use on a weekly basis.

  • Gmail: “from:” “-” “label:” “has:attachment” — for example finding decks from founders could be “has:attachment deck OR slides”

  • Google Drive: “-” “owner:” “after:” — for example finding recent investment memos could be “owner:dealLead after:19Q2”

  • Google: “site:” “OR” “-” — for example finding every time Tyler Cowen mentioned bitcoin “ bitcoin”

  • Twitter: lol (I use Google to search twitter and it’s not that useful)

It takes some time to generate the catalog of searches that you rely on for your work. But this process should get you most of the way there.

  1. Every time you need to find something, try and write a search query to retrieve it

  2. If you have a successful query, make a note of it (or better yet, keep a live document of all the key queries for your workspace)

  3. If you cannot write a good query, make a note of what can change to make files more searchable (for example: consistent language like “memo” vs “thesis, notes, idea, etc.”) and refine until you can write a query

  4. Teach your collaborators how to do the same

Search scales better than browse. Try it out and see if your team’s quality of life improves.