A recent question on the MindManager (MM) forum got me thinking about MindManager’s search capabilities. These are reasonably comprehensive when it comes to searching MM’s own files, with the ability to search topic text, notes, properties and a variety of other fields, as well as by file name.
Depending on what field you choose, MM will list not only the matching files but also the relevant topics. And, as you’d expect from a mind mapping program, MM provides various ways to incorporate search results directly into maps.
Outside of MM’s own files, however, the situation is very different. MM does have the capacity to incorporate all the files in a particular folder (or folders only, or a combination of files and folders) using File Explorer Map Parts, but this is an all-or-nothing feature with no search capability built into it.
The original question on the forum was asking whether MM’s tags could somehow be linked to tags or bookmarks in Adobe PDFs. The short answer is no, but I started to look at alternatives. I’ve found a couple of options – the first is specifically focused on PDFs, while the second, which involves the use of Windows File Explorer, provides universal searching across all file types.
These options require a reasonable level of experience in using MindManager. Readers are advised to trial these techniques extensively before attempting to use them on important or sensitive material.
The PDF option
Like MM, Adobe Acrobat provides comprehensive search facilities but goes one better – provided you have a full version of Acrobat rather than the free reader – with a feature which allows it to be used successfully in conjunction with MM.
Similar to MM, if you select Advanced Search in Acrobat it will show not only the files in which the search term appears but also list the all the places in each file. These appear as live links – click on one of them and you will be taken to the appropriate page in the PDF file, just as clicking on a topic listed under a map file name in a MM search will take you to the relevant map and topic.
The full version of Acrobat has an extra trick. Unlike MM, you can export directly from the search dialogue box (technically in MM you can export from a search, but only once you have saved the search results to a map).
There are two export file type options. The first is CSV (which can be opened by a spreadsheet program like Excel) and the second is as a PDF. At first glance the CSV tabular form would seem more attractive, listing as it does every instance within each file of the search term. However, none of the links are live and intervention is required to make them so once the file is converted to spreadsheet format.
The PDF version retains live links to the documents found in the search process, though while all the pages where the search term appears are listed directory style in the line of text where they appear, the page level listings are not live.
Both the CSV and PDF versions of the search results can be linked or attached to a MM map, providing an easy way to incorporate PDF document searches within MM. However, there are two limitations:
- While live links in the PDF version can be opened and the linked documents added to the map, this has to be done individually by copying the address of each document and pasting it in the map.
- The saved searches are static. Any subsequent changes to the documents in the searched folder will not be reflected in the PDF document, so the search will have to be repeated and the file overwritten to capture these changes.
Some other PDF editors also offer export capabilities, though they mostly have similar issues. For example, PDF-xchange has a similar approach to Acrobat, but its export file options are a proprietary format and a CSV file with similar limitations to those of the Acrobat CSV export.
Searching with File Explorer
Most people take the search function in Windows File Explorer (FE) for granted. We trawl through various folders, typing what we can recall of the half-forgotten name of a document and, hopefully, the file we were looking for appears. Occasionally when our first attempt fails we try a few more variations of the file name, but that pretty much sums up our interaction with FE.
This is a shame, because FE is a surprisingly powerful search program with a range of features that make it exceptionally useful for MindManager users. These include:
- Access to Boolean search operators;
- Depending on how search is set up on your system, the ability to index and search on file contents as well as name;
- The capacity to select location and to include or exclude subfolders;
- The ability to “refine” or narrow searches to specific date ranges, file kinds, size and “other properties” including file type, name, folder path and tags;
- Options to apply the standard FE View options such as Layout, Sort and Group to search results; and
- Above all, the ability to save searches in user-selected folders and then access them directly from outside FE. It’s this feature which makes FE searches accessible to MindManager, especially as these searches are dynamic and therefore are refreshed every time the search file is opened.
The steps for setting FE up searches and bringing them into MM are relatively straightforward:
- Open File Explorer and create a folder specifically for saved searches, then navigate to the folder you want to search.
- Create the search in FE. This can involve all the features described earlier, so you can for example search for only PDF files and also Boolean operators, for example, tram OR train, tram NOT train, or “tram train”.
- When the search results appear confirm that you have the results you expected and select your preferred layout to view them. You can choose how the results are sorted and if you are using the Details view you can specify which columns to show and in what order.
- Save the search to the folder you created in step 1. This should create a file which incorporates the name of the search, for example “tram.search-ms”. Repeat the process for any other searches you want to use in MM.
- Open the MindManager map in which you want to use the search results, select the topic you want to attach them to and import the search(es). There are several options for doing this, including copy and paste and dragging the search file into the map, but I think the most useful is MM’s own Files Map Part, mainly because it can be refreshed to show any additions or deletions of searches in the search folder.
- To use this approach, select the Files Map Part from the File Explorer folder on the Map parts tab, then navigate to the folder with the file searches and press OK. A topic will be added to the map with the name of the folder where the search files are stored, along with subtopics for each of the searches.
- To access any of the searches saved in the map simply double click on the search icon of the relevant subtopic in this folder. The list of files meeting the criteria should appear either in the built-in browser window or externally, depending on the default in your MM installation.
- To use any of the files listed in the search results either copy and paste them or drag them onto a topic (you can highlight multiple files). You will be asked if you want to add the files as topic links or as attachments.
To test whether the search is active and working properly at any time, simply create a dummy file in the folder being searched which has the search term in its name or body text – do this in FE itself rather than in the search results.
This file should appear in the search results; conversely, deleting a file that meets the search criteria from the folder should result in its disappearance from the results list. Similarly, refreshing the parent topic in MM linked to the folder where the searches are saved will refresh the view of this folder, adding any new searches and deleting removed ones.
The combination of dynamic searches and MM’s folder map part makes this a powerful tool. The search results are automatically updated, as is the list of searches themselves when the parent topic is updated. This availability is enhanced by the ability to search on file contents as well as by name and the range of options to tailor quite specific search terms and file types, and the search results can be easily added to a map.
The approach I’ve described lends itself to centralising all searches as subtopics under a single topic in a map. Alternatively, individual searches can be imported and distributed around a map; this has the advantage that unlike the searches listed under the folder map part the search topic names can be edited (note this won’t affect the search terms themselves).
I haven’t tested fully all aspects of FE searches or their potential to be integrated into MM, but another useful aspect is that FE searches appear to be relative. This means that if they are saved in the same folder as the subfolders being searched and the map in which they will be used, they should work if the folder is synced to the cloud and the search subsequently opened on another computer.
Issues and Limitations
While files within search views can be deleted or renamed within the browser view in MM, I would advise exploring this facility carefully before relying on it. On several occasions my attempts to manipulate files via FE searches in MM have caused the program to behave erratically and even crash. It also does not seem possible to add files in search views. However, these issues only seem to affect searches when they are opened via a map.
Searching within files works best if all files are set to be indexed by both their index properties and file contents under Windows’ Advanced Search Indexer Settings. This level of indexing can take time to complete, and sometimes when files are added it can also take a little while for indexing and consequently FE searches to catch up. Searches will also not work if the map is saved on a different drive, unless folders containing the FE searches and the search files are also saved in the same place.
Another limitation is that a FE search will flag files that contain the search term within the file, but unlike searches in Acrobat and MM of each program’s own files it won’t provide a page number or other location information for each appearance. And subfolder searching in FE is an all-or-nothing thing – in other words, either all subfolders are searched, or none.
You also need to choose your preferred view for each file search carefully (see step 3 above). This is because it doesn’t seem possible to change this once it is incorporated into a map, at least within the built-in browser. The full range of View options becomes available if the search is opened up in an outside browser but changing it there won’t affect the default view the search was saved with.
The most obvious use for this facility would be to assist in mind map-based project management. While many such projects would have file storage structured in folders and subfolders which are accessible through MM’s File Explorer Map Parts, there is often a need to find, track and manage documents that meet specific criteria across or within these folders.
This facility can also be used as a tool in qualitative research mind maps to quickly identify and categorise downloaded documents based on file type, keywords or other criteria. Both project managers and researchers could also benefit from the ability to refine searches by time, for example to see at a glance what material has been added to a project today.
And, finally, those people who haven’t organised their files into folders and who are consequently suffering from information overload now have no excuse – they can mind map their way out of this dilemma with a set of well-designed File Explorer searches!