Searching on Google Drive finally works like Google

Posted: 21 September 2016 7:48 am


Why did it take so long for natural language queries like "Where's my spreadsheet about cats from last December" to be an option?

While you can set up folders if you want to, Google Drive has always largely relied on search to help people find their spreadsheets, documents and photos. It's a very Google approach to the world, but the search options for Drive have always been relatively limited compared to Google's web search, where you can type in a query like "ABBA song Madonna ripped off" and get the Wikipedia entry for 'Hung Up' as the very first result.

Drive is nowhere near as efficient. If you don't know the actual name of the file you're searching for, you can spend ages hunting around (especially if you've been too lazy to give your documents a proper name in the first place). There are other useful ways to find stuff, such as "starring" files you work with regularly or checking the list of Recent files, but a revamp for search within Drive has been long overdue.

And now it's finally here. Overnight, Google announced that Natural Language Processing (NLP) now works on Drive. What that means is you can now type in normal-sounding queries like "find my salaries spreadsheet" or "show me all the spreadsheets Britney has created", and Drive should give you useful results.

Should is an important word in this context. Google's announcement coyly notes that "Drive NLP will get better with each query – so keep on searching". Drive will also offer autocorrect suggestions for common misspellings when you're typing queries, which should also make the process faster.

There's one big caveat here: this isn't being offered to all Google Drive users immediately. As is frequently the case with Google products, these features are being rolled out "gradually", so it might be a few weeks before you see this option yourself. However, the rollout is "worldwide", which is welcome, since often Google updates hit the US first and only arrive elsewhere in the world months or years later.

Why did this take so long? The cynical-but-likely answer is that Drive, for Google, is essentially a hobby. The big bucks are still in search advertising, and that's why search there saw these improvements a long time ago.

Not all of Google's experiments and changes survive. Some, like its recent Tic-tac-toe game, are a pure indulgence. Others are bigger and irrelevant: no-one cares about Google+ these days, and I doubt that Google Spaces is going to do much better. However, the change to Drive definitely seems like a useful improvement that should stick around.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on

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