I am looking for a 'desktop search' solution for the mac. I like the look of HoudahSpot (built on top of Spotlight) but it doesn't quite do everything I would like.

My ideal search solution would do all of the following:

  1. Index all content of all MS Word documents on an individual computer (and preferably other formats as well, but MS Word is the key one), with ability to exclude certain files, documents and folders

  2. Ability to have several custom document indexes ie. can ideally set up some content indexes to only contain a smaller subset of documents related to a certain project - not everything on my computer. Or alternatively have 'saved searches'.

  3. When you do a search for a phrase or term, a list of MS Word documents that contains the search term/phrase is returned.

  4. An extract with the search term highlighted is displayed for each document returned in the search results list, including some indication if the phrase appears in a document more than once. Viewing the extract within which a term or phrase appears helps context it and give a better idea of if this is the occurrence you are looking for.

  5. When you click on an item in the search results window that document is opened in its native application ie. MS Word, AND

  6. All occurrences of the term or phrase are highlighted in the open document, with the first occurrence selected. Ideally have ability to quickly move forward and back between multiple occurrences of the phrase/term within one document.

  7. An added bonus would be the ability to do 'boolean', 'proximity' and other more advanced searches.

  8. Tag documents with metadata, and this metadata can be searched on

  9. Can index and search across multiple locations eg. servers as well as local computer

As mentioned, the closest I can find on the mac is the 'HoudahSpot' product, but I think it only does 1, 3, 5, 7 and 8?

The other solution that does everything I want is Adobe Acrobat's PDF search functionality, however its only for PDFs. If I could find similar functionality for MS Word documents I'd be really happy!

My other option is to move to a full document management solution, but I would probably still need to employ a developer to customize the search functionality to meet all my above needs? I'm not sure what document management system has good search? Also possibly there are limits to Spotlight's underlying design that stops me meeting all of the above requirements through products such as HoudahSpot? Maybe things like hit highlighting within MS Word could just use Word's inbuilt Find function, with the search term being passed to MS Word when the MS Word document is opened?

Any ideas or advice from anyone would be much appreciated.

5 Answers 5


I don't know of a third party solution, but I do know that Spotlight can do all of those things, except for #6, but that's more of a function of Word than Spotlight.


DEVONthink can index specific folders, and supports advanced search operators. It supports most common types of file, including Word documents.

It builds its own search indexes (a DEVONthink database can support Spotlight – screen shot below – without relying upon Spotlight). Search is pretty fast. Results are shown within the application.

Pro editions allow multiple databases. Each search is restricted to the open database(s); you can have separate databases indexing different logical collections of files.

Screen shots from a first run of DEVONthink Pro Office 2.8.11 on pre-release macOS Sierra:

A 'Welcome' dialogue Creation of a .dtBase2 database file

  • While I agree with the answer by @chrismanderson that Spotlight itself can—using some smartly designed saved searches—do most of what is requested in the question, adding DEVONthink to one's search toolkit adds many great options, notably the ability to view all occurrences of the search phrase highlighted in the body of multiple file types, including PDF, DOCX, etc. DEVONthink also creates its own indexes separate from the Spotlight index.
    – Big Mac
    May 21, 2018 at 18:12

Try Alfred or Quicksilver

Those apps are amazing :)


Full disclosure: I am the developer of HoudahSpot

HoudahSpot 3 fulfills all requirements set by the original poster.

  1. HoudahSpot builds upon the Spotlight index. The MS Word Spotlight importer does a good job with document contents

  2. HoudahSpot can search several locations at once and exclude locations from search. Searches can be saved as documents or templates for recurring searches

  3. Yes

  4. HoudahSpot's text preview shows a text only (no formatting) version of the selected search results. It highlights the different terms you searched for

  5. Yes

  6. HoudahSpot passes the first text search term to the application used to open a document. Some applications immediately highlight the found text. Others have you press cmd-G (Find Next) before they do

  7. Combine criteria using boolean operators. Yes – Advanced searches. Yes –Proximity searches. Sadly not possible

  8. Open Meta and Mavericks Finder tags

  9. Any location indexed by Spotlight. This includes mounted drives attached to remote Macs. This excludes many other NAS solutions


Try Leap from Ironic Software.

  • 3
    Welcome to Ask Different! Could you add some info about the recommended software? What does it do and why do you like it? Please take a look at the FAQs for more info. Thanks. Oct 18, 2011 at 13:56
  • From looking at the app description in the store it's a bit unclear how Leap differs from Spotlight.
    – nohillside
    Oct 23, 2011 at 11:12
  • Leap is an alternative interface for Spotlight. One of Leap's strengths is that its sidebar automatically displays all tags applied to a given list of files. So, for example, if you search in a certain folder for all Word documents containing a certain phrase, Leap's sidebar will display all the tags occurring only in the search results. If you click on one those tags, the tag is added to the search and the sidebar updates to show the tags only in the new search results. Such easy iterative display of tags isn't possible in Finder.
    – Big Mac
    May 21, 2018 at 18:39
  • I can't find this app in the App Store. Jan 15, 2021 at 12:46

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