Using Finder Tags on Your Mac

An Introduction to Tags and How to Use Them with Your Mac

The Finder sidebar includes a special Tags section

Coyote Moon, Inc.

Long-time users of Finder labels may be a bit put off by their disappearance with the introduction of OS X Mavericks, but their replacement, Finder tags, is a lot more versatile and should prove a great addition to managing files and folders in the Finder.

A Finder tag is a simple way of categorizing a file or folder so that it can be easily found again, by using search methods, such as Spotlight, or by using the Finder sidebar to locate tagged files or folders. But before we get into using tags, let's take a look at them in a bit more detail.

Tag Colors

You can add tags to new files you create as well as add them to existing files on your Mac. Apple provides a set of seven pre-made tags, in the form of colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and gray. You can also choose to use just a descriptive tag, with no color.

The tag colors are the same ones used for labels in previous versions of OS X. Any file that was labeled in an earlier version of OS X will show up as tagged in OS X Mavericks and later, with the same color. Likewise, if you move a tagged file from Mavericks to a Mac running an older version of OS X, the tag will be converted to a label of the same color. So on the color level, tags and labels are mostly interchangeable.

Beyond the Colors

Tags provide a great deal more flexibility than the labels they replace. First off, they're not limited to colors; tags can be descriptive, such as banking, household, or work. You can use tags to make it easy to locate all files related to a project, such as "backyard deck" or "my new Mac app." Even better, you're not limited to using a single tag. You can combine multiple tags any way you wish. For example, you could tag a file as green, backyard deck, and DIY projects. You can even use multiple colors in a tag.

Tags in the Finder

Tags aren't as eye-popping as the older labels they replace. Label colors were background colors that complete surrounded a file's name, making it really stand out. Tags just add a colored dot that appears in its own column (list view) or next to the file name in the other Finder views.

Files that only have descriptive tags (no colored dot) aren't obvious in any of the Finder views, although they're still searchable. This may be one reason there's an option to apply multiple tags (color and description); it makes tagged files easier to spot.

If you choose to tag a file with multiple colors, you'll see a small stack of circles overlapping each other instead of a single colored dot.

Tags in the Finder Sidebar

The Finder sidebar includes a special Tags section where all of the colored tags, and any descriptive tags you create, are listed. Clicking on a tag will display all of the files that have been tagged with that color or description.

Adding Tags in Save Dialogs

You can add tags to any new or existing file or folder on your Mac. You can add tags to a newly created file via the standard Save dialog box used by most Mac applications. For an example, let's use TextEdit, the free word processor included with OS X, to create a new file and add a tag or two.

  1. Launch TextEdit, located in the /Applications folder.
  2. TextEdit's Open dialog box will appear; click the New Document button.
  3. Enter a few words into the TextEdit document. This is a test file, so any text will do.
  4. From the File menu, select Save.
  5. At the top of the Save dialog box you'll see a Save As field, where you can give the document a name. Just below it is the Tags field, where you can assign an existing tag or create a new tag for the document you're about to save.
  6. Click in the Tags field. A popup menu of recently used tags will display.
  7. To add a tag from the popup menu, click on the desired tag; it will be added to the Tags field.
  8. If the tag you wish to use isn't in the list, select the Show All item for a complete list of available tags.
  9. To add a new tag, type a descriptive name for the new tag in the Tags field, and then press the return, enter, or tab keys.
  10. You can add more tags to the new file by repeating the above process.

Adding Tags in the Finder

You can add tags to existing files from within the Finder using a method that's similar to the Save dialog box method described above.

  1. Open a Finder window, and navigate to the item you want to tag.
  2. Highlight the desired file in the Finder window, and then click the Edit Tags button in the Finder Toolbar (it looks like a dark oval with a dot to one side).
  3. A popup menu will appear, allowing you to add a new tag. You can follow steps 7 through 10 above to complete the process of adding one or more tags.

Searching for Tags

You can find tags by using the Finder sidebar and clicking on one of the listed tags. All files that have that tag assigned to them will be displayed.

If you have a large number of tagged files, or you're looking for a file with multiple tags, you can use the Finder's search feature to narrow things down.

When you select a tag from the Finder sidebar, the Finder window that opens not only displays the tagged files, but also a search bar ready for you to use to refine your search. This is a standard Finder search bar, which uses Spotlight to perform the search. Because it's essentially a Spotlight search, you can use Spotlight's ability to specify a file type to search on:

  1. Place your cursor in the Finder window's search field and enter "tags:" (without the quotes), followed by any additional tag description you wish. For example: Tag: backyard deck
  2. This will narrow the displayed files in the Finder window down to files that have the tag backyard deck. You can enter multiple tags to search on by preceding each with the "tag:" type statement. For example: Tag: backyard desk tag: green
  3. This will find all files that have been tagged with both the color green and the description backyard deck.

You can perform the same tag-based search directly in Spotlight as well. Click the Spotlight menu item in the Apple menu bar and enter the file type tag: followed by the tag's name.

The Future of Tags

Tags seem to be a pretty solid step forward as a way to organize and find related files in the Finder or from Spotlight. Tags offer a number of useful capabilities, and as with any new feature, a few things that need improvement.

I would like to see tags support more than eight colors. It would also be nice to see every tagged file in the Finder be marked, not just those with colored tags.

Published: 11/5/2013

Updated: 5/30/2015