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All about Tagging in the Mavericks Finder

Tags have been popular since the dawn of “Web 2.0,” but I never quite wrapped my head around them. So when file tagging was announced as a feature of OS X 10.9 Mavericks, I wasn’t terribly excited. But after playing with the feature for a few weeks, my eyes have been opened to just how powerful tagging is.

For those not in the know, tags are a form of metadata that enables non-hierarchical grouping. In plain English, that means that you can collect files together without using folders, and do so in a way that’s easier and more flexible than working with aliases.

Why would you want to do this? Let’s say that you have a project that involves different kinds of files: spreadsheets, images, and documents. A recent example is a chart I prepared to compare Apple’s product sales over time. I compiled the data and chart in Numbers, which I saved into iCloud in case I needed to collaborate on it with the editorial staff. Next, I exported the chart as a PDF, which I saved in my Documents folder. Then, I converted the PDF to a PNG in Preview, and dropped that file into my Pictures folder, which the automation utility Hazel subsequently organized into my TidBITS Screenshots folder.

I tagged each of these files as “Apple Financial,” so despite being scattered all around my hard drive, I can easily group them in one place. Admittedly, that could be accomplished with aliases, but tags make it so the document I stored in iCloud appears with all the rest, something that’s not possible with aliases.

“But why not just keep them all in the same folder,” you may ask. Well, a file can live in only one directory at a time. What if a file falls into different categories that make choosing a single location difficult? For example, I have a lovely engagement picture of my wife and me that makes for a good Desktop background. With tags, I can tag it with (Josh) (Hannah) (Wallpapers) (Engagement), and then store it in a folder of photos named for the month in which they were taken.

What’s most important, though, is that the tags make it easier for me to find that photo later, since I don’t have to remember exactly when it was taken. Instead, I can look under any of those tags to find it, along with other files that share the same tags.

In short, grouping files with tags makes them much easier to organize. You can also group folders together with tags. As another example, take what Adam Engst has done with Take Control. Each ebook’s files exist in a variety of folders, one for the Dropbox folder used by Leanpub, another shared Dropbox folder for the cover graphics, a folder on his local file server for the final production files, and a series of folders for each distribution format. With appropriate tags, he could collect all the folders for a particular book together, despite the many places in which they must live.

Let’s examine how you can use tags in Mavericks, from creating and applying your own tags to finding and working with tagged files and folders.

Create, Apply, and Remove Tags — Adding tags to an existing file is easy, which is essential, because if tagging takes too much time, you won’t bother. Equally important, for tagging to be useful, you must be consistent in your tagging efforts.

To start, let’s look at tagging files and folders in the Finder, since you’ll probably want to tag a bunch of the existing items with which you’re working.

The most obvious way to assign tags to files and folders in the Finder is by using the sidebar in Finder windows, which displays your tags. Drag one or more items in the Finder to a tag in the sidebar to assign that tag to the dragged files and folders. (As far as I can see, holding down a modifier key while dragging a file to a tag makes no difference.)

Otherwise, you’ll work in the tag editor, a popover with a text entry field and a list of existing tags. In it, you can:


  • Click a tag in the list to add it to the field. The list shows 12 tags; if you have more, a Show All item at the end gives you a scrollbar to see the rest. (I’ll explain how to control which 12 appear here shortly.)

  • Type a few characters from a tag’s name; Mavericks suggests auto-completions that you can choose from with the arrow keys and select by pressing either Tab or Return. Clicking a suggestion also works.

  • Create a new tag by typing its name and pressing Tab or Return or comma. Tags can have spaces in their names. Press Escape if you start creating a tag and want to back out without doing anything.

  • Remove a tag from the file by clicking it in the text field and pressing Delete or Forward Delete. In fact, tags work just like any normal text character, so you can arrow between them, select them with Shift-arrows, and so on.

The tag editor appears in a variety of places in the Finder, but works similarly in all of them. You can invoke it in the following ways after selecting the items you want to tag:

  • In a Finder window, click the Edit Tags button in the toolbar.
  • Control- or right-click, and choose Tags from the contextual menu that appears.

  • Choose File > Tags.

  • Select an item, choose File > Get Info (Command-I), and in the Info window, click in the Add Tags field at the top.

In two of these cases — when you Control- or right-click an item in the Finder, and when you drop the File menu — you’ll also see seven favorite tags that you can click directly within the menu to add or remove, without having to choose Tags. You can apply or remove only a single favorite tag at a time, so if you want to work with multiple tags, bring up the full tag editor instead. More on how to set favorite tags in a bit.


If you want to tag files even faster with a keyboard shortcut, try this tip from our pal Brett Terpstra.

  1. Open the Keyboard pane of System Preferences, click Shortcuts at the top, and click App Shortcuts in the left column.

  2. Click the plus button to create a new shortcut, and choose Finder from the Application pop-up menu.

  3. In the Menu Title field, enter Tags… (the ellipsis character is necessary; get it by pressing Option-;).

  4. In the Keyboard Shortcut field, enter your desired key combination — a safe one that doesn’t conflict with any Finder defaults is Control-Shift-T — and click the Add button to finish.

Now you can select items in the Finder and pull up the tag editor with a quick key press.

You don’t have to wait to add tags to a document you’re working on, since a Tags field also now appears below the Save As field (where you enter your file’s name) when you save a document. Click it to bring up the now-familiar tag editor.

If you’re working in an application that supports Apple’s Modern Document Model, you can bring up the tag editor for that document by clicking the arrow to the right of the file name in the title bar and then clicking in the Tags field.

The presence of that arrow when you mouse over the name of a document in the title bar is the best indication of an app that supports the Modern Document Model; Apple apps like Pages, Keynote, Numbers, and TextEdit do, whereas apps with a longer lineage (and less reason to toe the party line) like Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, along with BBEdit and Nisus Writer Pro, tend not to.

Find Tagged Files and Folders — Now that you’ve tagged some items, it’s time to put your tags to use. The main place where you interact with tags is in the Finder, specifically within the sidebar of Finder windows. (You can manage your tags in numerous ways within Finder windows too; I’ll get to that shortly.)

Most notably, click a tag in the sidebar to display all the files and folders to which that tag has been assigned. If you’re using tabs in the Finder, you can Command-click a tab in the sidebar to open it in a new tab (for full details about tabs, see “Using Tabs in the Mavericks Finder,” 31 October 2013).

The only problem with using the Finder sidebar to bring together tagged files and folders is that you could easily end up with too many items sharing the same tag, rendering the grouping useless. There’s no way to perform a more complex selection from the sidebar, such as selecting items that have the Red tag but don’t also have the Blue tag.

However, you can bring Spotlight to bear on the problem in two ways. First, if you click a tag in the sidebar and then run a Spotlight search in that window, it’s limited to items with that tag. That makes it easy to find specific files. Second, when you’re typing in the Spotlight search field, if you enter the first few characters of a tag name, you can select the Tag label to include that in a search that also includes filename or data criteria, for instance. As a tip, to search for a tag directly, it can be easiest to start your search with tag: and then a few characters of the tag name.

You can even search for multiple tags, as in tag:Red tag:Blue. Unfortunately, Apple’s support for tags in Spotlight doesn’t seem to include Boolean operators, so you can’t insert NOT or OR between two tags in the search field for more interesting searches, such as Sharon Zardetto describes in her comprehensive “Take Control of Spotlight for Finding Anything on Your Mac.” Nor can you find untagged files.

One last thing. Say you’ve identified a file by clicking an associated tag in a Finder window’s sidebar. What if you want to see what other files are in its actual folder? Or perhaps you want to compress it or burn it to a disc? (Those commands disappear from the contextual menu because they don’t make sense on a file that has no apparent location — the same is true of the results of a Spotlight search.) To trace back to a tagged file’s actual location on disk, choose File > Show in Enclosing Folder (Command-R) or the same command from the contextual menu. And, as our own Michael Cohen pointed out, you can also find the actual location by enabling the Path Bar in View > Show Path Bar (Command-Option-P). Note that you can
double-click any folder in the Path Bar to open it.

Manage Tags — The sidebar of Finder windows provides direct access to numerous tag management capabilities, and the few things you can’t do from the sidebar are exposed in the Tags pane of the Finder Preferences window. In the sidebar, you can:

  • Drag a tag within the sidebar to rearrange the order. The first 12 appear in the tag editor directly; the rest can be revealed by clicking Show All in the tag editor.

  • Drag a tag off the sidebar to remove it from the sidebar; you can also Control- or right-click it and choose Remove from Sidebar. This does not delete the tag or affect any files with that tag.

  • Control- or right-click a tag to access two other important commands: Rename and Delete. The former selects the tag’s name for editing; the latter deletes the tag and removes that tag from all items to which it has been assigned.

  • When you Control- or right-click a tag, you can also choose a color (or no color) for it from the seven available.

  • The final item in the Finder window’s sidebar is always All Tags. Clicking it displays yet another sidebar within the window that lists all your tags, in alphabetical order. It’s a good way to access little-used tags that you normally don’t want to see on the main sidebar. You can use the tags in this secondary sidebar exactly as you would in the main sidebar, though you can’t rearrange them or remove them from the sidebar. (It would be logically consistent if Control- or right-clicking a tag that had been removed from the main sidebar provided an Add to Sidebar command.)

So how would you add a removed tag back to the Finder window’s main sidebar? For that, turn to the Tags pane of the Finder Preferences window; choose Finder > Preferences > Tags. In it, you can perform the following tasks:

  • Control sidebar visibility with the checkbox to the right of the tag’s name. Selected tags appear in the sidebar; deselected tags don’t. But what are those “partially selected” minus signs in the checkbox? They’re applied to newly created tags that you haven’t explicitly acted on in the Tags preference pane. If you move the tag, it becomes selected. John Siracusa’s description of this feature doesn’t entirely match with our tests, but we still agree with John that it’s a lousy interface.

  • Drag tags within the list to rearrange the order in which they appear in the sidebar. Again, the first 12 appear in the tag editor.

  • Rename a tag by clicking its name and giving it a new one. The only reserved character that you can’t use, not surprisingly, is the comma.

  • Change a tag’s color by clicking the colored dot to the left of its name and choosing a new color from the pop-up menu. You can’t modify the list of colors or the colors themselves.

  • Control- or right-click a tag if you want to delete the tag; the contextual menu also shows the familiar Rename command and lets you pick a color for the tag.

  • To set a tag as a favorite, for quick access in the Finder’s File and contextual menus, drag it to a particular position in the Favorite Tags area at the bottom of the window. Since favorite tags display their names in Finder menus only when you hover the pointer over them, assign their colors carefully. By default, these are set to what used to be Finder labels.

Speaking of the previous Finder labels, they live on as tags, and the ones you’ve always used are still there, although you may need to put them back in the order you expect after upgrading to Mavericks. If you’re sharing files with a previous version of Mac OS X, tagged files will appear to be labeled with the last (in the Get Info window’s tag list) tag that has a color assigned to it.

Sharing Tags, for Good and Ill — So what happens if you share a file via email, Messages, file server, Dropbox, or the like? It depends on whether metadata is preserved in the process, so tags are lost when sending a tagged file via email or Messages, but are retained when sharing via a local file server, Dropbox, or external storage devices like hard disks and USB flash drives, even those formatted as FAT32. There’s one way to prevent tags from being lost, no matter what transfer or storage method you choose. If you compress a tagged file in the Finder and send the Zip archive to a Mavericks user, the tags are preserved and will appear on the other end.

As a result, it’s entirely likely that you’ll end up with a cornucopia of unfamiliar tags that have wormed their way into your system via shared files and compressed email attachments. But be careful when deleting unfamiliar tags, because if a tag has come in via a shared Dropbox folder, for instance, deleting it will remove it from all those shared files, which might prove problematic for someone else’s workflow.

Fortunately, tags that come in via shared files are not displayed in your sidebar by default, so you don’t have to worry about colleagues adding prank tags.

Tagging It to the Next Level — Once you get the hang of applying tags and managing files using them, you can automate the process, using the recently updated Hazel from Noodlesoft ($28). Hazel watches folders you specify, and when files in them match criteria you’ve set, it performs actions on those files. The latest version of Hazel supports tags, so you can both perform actions based on the tags applied to files, and create rules that add and remove tags from files.

For instance, I have a Hazel rule that moves photos and screenshots from my Dropbox Camera Uploads folder and my Desktop into my Pictures folder. It then sorts PNGs into my Screenshots folder and JPEGs into a dated folder. It also tags photos as Untagged and screenshots as either iOS Screenshot or Mac Screenshot, depending on the file name. I can then easily find screenshots for either platform by viewing the associated tag in the Finder. As for photos, I can see which have the Untagged tag and apply more appropriate tags based on where the photos were taken or who is in them.

Every day, I figure out a new use for tags — using them to organize my photo collection, separate my screenshots, group projects, and even identify photos for later categorization. For me, tagging has proven a faster and more effective way of organizing files than stuffing them into folders, and hopefully I’ve given you some ideas on how to put them to work. But I’m sure everyone has their own ideas about how best to use tags — let us know what yours are in the comments!

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