April 21, 2008

Add faceted search to Thunderbird with Seek

Author: Dmitri Popov

Do you struggle to keep tabs on your Thunderbird inbox? The SIMILE Seek extension might be the answer to your problems. The extension adds faceted browsing to Thunderbird, which allows you to search and manage your email messages in a radically different way than you are used to.

Extension logo

To better understand how faceted browsing works, take a look at sites like the venerable Open Directory Project. The site allows you to narrow your search by filtering the data by the criteria, or facets, you choose. For example, you may start with a broad category called Computer, then narrow it to Open Source, then Software, and so on. Each time you choose a category, you effectively add a facet to your search, and thus make it more precise.

The Seek extension can help you to search your email in a similar manner. Once installed, Seek adds a panel to Thunderbird's interface with several default facets. Each facet displays search results for the criteria it represents. For example, the Tag facet shows all the tagged emails grouped by their tags. The Recency facet displays all emails received today, the day before, within a week, and so on.

Each facet not only provides a quick overview of the messages that match the facet's criteria, but also lets you filter the results. For example, you can view messages tagged as Important by clicking on the Important tag in the Tag facet. Another way to narrow search results is to use the "Type to filter" field in some of the facets. Start entering a search criteria in the field, and the facet narrows the search results as you type. You can, of course, refine the search results by combining several facets. For example, you can quickly find messages sent directly to you (the To CC/me facet) by a particular person (the From facet) the day before (The Recency facet). You can see the number of messages matching the chosen facets in the Results pane, which contains a few other useful features. Using the search field, you can combine more traditional text search with faceted browsing. And if you tick the Include whole threads check box, Seek groups the messages into threads, giving you a better overview of your correspondence.

You can easily rearrange facets in the Seek panel by using drag and drop. You can also remove some of the default facets and add more facets by choosing them from the list of available facets. So, if you don't use tags, you can replace the Tag facet with something else; for example, the Priority facet.

Seek also boasts an impressive visualization feature, which is based on another nifty tool from the SIMILE project called Timeline. Select Visualize from the drop-down list in the Results pane, and Seek maps the email messages on a visual timeline. At least this is how it's supposed to work in theory. In practice, however, I couldn't make this feature work. Every time I tried it, the extension threw an error message complaining about an unresponsive script.

Another of Seek's weak points is that the extension performs indexing every time you select a folder. It's not a big problem if the folder contains a couple of hundred messages, but it can become an issue if you have thousands. For example, on my machine, it took Seek 1 minute and 12 seconds to index a folder containing 10,338 emails. While this is pretty fast, it's still quite a nuisance if you switch often between different folders. To work around this problem you can enable Seek only when needed, and then deactivate it when you are done searching, by pressing the Disengage link.

Despite these drawbacks, Seek is by far the most impressive and innovative extension for Thunderbird out there. If you want to beef up your email client with powerful search capabilities, Seek is worth a try.

Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)


  • Mail & Messaging
  • Reviews
Click Here!