Using search in ArcGIS

ArcGIS includes the ability to index your GIS content, search for the data, and put the results to work quickly—for example, you can quickly search for data regardless of where the data is located on your disk. You can also search for geoprocessing tools without navigating the tool hierarchy in the toolbox window.

Search is accessed through the Search window. The Search window is also used to configure and manage how search is used—for example, to identify the file folders, geodatabases, and servers that you want to search against.

Preparing to use search

Ensure that you have set your search properties before using the search. To do this, you will identify the set of folders on your local computer or network as well as any geodatabase connections that you want to search against.

See the Reviewing and setting your indexing options section below for more guidance.

Updating and maintaining your search index

Since you are periodically creating new datasets and modifying or replacing existing ones, it's possible that your search index will not reflect the latest status of your contents.

You can use the Search Options dialog box to control how often your index is rebuilt or to re-create it on demand. This will help when searching in workspace folders and geodatabases that undergo a lot of change.

See the Reviewing and setting your indexing options section below for more guidance.

Searching for items

Use the Search window to search for items:

  1. Open the Search window by clicking the Search window button Search or clicking Windows > Search on the main menu.
  2. This will display the Search window in which you can search for GIS items and review the results.
    Searching for map templates

Viewing and working with search results

Search results are displayed in the results window. You can perform several operations on each search result:

Sorting and grouping results

By default, search results are sorted by relevance. You can change the sort order by clicking the Sort By link and choosing a different field to sort search results. When appropriate, you can also sort results in ascending/descending order.


Spatial Relevance is enabled only in the context of spatial search. See the next section on spatial search for more details.

Search window sort results

Search results are also grouped by data type for your convenience. Click the Search returned items link to see the grouping of your results. You can quickly see the breakdown of your results by type as shown below:

Search window group results

Check desired types and click Apply Filters to narrow down your search results to show only a subset of relevant results. Click the Remove Filters or the Back button on the Search toolbar to go back to previous search results.


ArcGIS Online searches groups showing the first 300 results only.

Map-based spatial search

Spatial search is tied to your map. In other words, search results are restricted to the current visible extent on your map. As you zoom or pan your map, the search results update to reflect the data within or overlapping your current visible extent. The behavior is similar to searching for restaurants or other landmarks in Google Maps. As you zoom or pan your Google map, it automatically refreshes results in the current visible extent.

By default, you search for data in any extent ignoring the current visible extent of your map. In other words, the map-based spatial search is turned off by default. To enable spatial searching, click Any Extent and choose either the Within Current Extent or Within Or Overlapping Current Extent option. After you choose one of these two options, as you pan or zoon your map, the Search window automatically reflects the results relevant to the current extent of your map. You can turn off the spatial search filter at any time by choosing the Any Extent option.

Map-based spatial Search

Add at least one layer to your current map to enable these choices.

These options are always disabled in ArcCatalog as spatial search is not supported in ArcCatalog.

Text-based spatial search

Map-based spatial search works well when you know the geographic extent of your map as you've seen in the above section. Sometimes you know the geography only by its geographic name, and you want the software to figure out the geographic extent. In such cases, text-based spatial search helps you locate relevant data based on geographic names.

Examples of text-based spatial searches include:

Parcel data in Redlands, CA

Data near Paris, France

The keywords in and near have special meaning in ArcGIS search. If a well-defined geographic name followed by these keywords in search strings is detected, spatial filters are automatically applied based on the geography and relevant results are found in that geographic extent. If the name has multiple geographic locations, you can pick the desired one from the drop-down list as shown below:

Text-based spatial search

You can optionally zoom your map to a specific geographic location. This option is turned off by default, but can be enabled within the Search Options window's General tab.

Spatial search options

Map scale and spatial search

Datasets can render well only at certain scale levels and become irrelevant when you are viewing very large- or small-scale maps. Spatial search is tied to the current map extent and, therefore, map scale becomes an important factor in returning relevant search results based on the current visible extent. For example, when you are working with a map at global scale, data relevant to small cities and neighborhoods becomes irrelevant, and you may not want to see it in the search results. By default, the scale-based spatial filter is turned off. You can turn it on using the drop-down menu on the Search Options button as shown below:

Scale-based spatial search


Map scales are not derived intrinsically. You must input relevant levels for your datasets as part of documenting your item description. Without this information you may not get the appropriate results when you enable this option. See Documenting Items in the Catalog window for more information.

Search using synonyms

Synonyms are a group of words that are roughly synonymous in a given context. When you search for a word, you can retrieve results that contain words with the same or similar meaning.

For example, when you search for the word route, you may also want to find results related to roads, streets, rail roads, water ways, and flight paths. To trigger searching for synonyms, prefix your search terms with $.


Searching for route yields nine results:

Search without synonyms

Searching for $route yields 46 results:

Search with synonyms

User-defined synonyms

The supported built-in synonyms are very generic terms and are not designed to work with GIS-specific terms. You can customize terms by defining your organization-specific GIS terms and placing them under your user profile.

Use the following steps to create custom synonyms to use in desktop search:

  1. Go to your user profile directory located at ..\ESRI\Desktop10.1\ArcCatalog\SearchIndex\Synonyms\UserDefined
  2. Edit the UserDefinedSynonyms.xml file and add your own user-defined synonyms. Follow the comments in the xml file to define synonyms.
  3. Save the file.
  4. In the search window, search for your custom synonyms using the $ prefix.

Useful search tips

Here are some useful things to think about when you use ArcGIS search.

Identifying what to search

ArcGIS search has a few important ways to target your search, which are described here.

Reviewing and setting your indexing options

You can manage the search properties in the Search Options dialog box.

Building a search index is important so that your search results are fast and accurate. Using default settings will typically serve most users very well. However, you can use this dialog box to modify certain settings. For example:

You can also manually control immediate indexing to update, pause, or reindex your ArcGIS contents.

Open the Search Options dialog box by clicking the Search Options button on the Search window.

Search Options button

  1. On the Search Options dialog box, you can review and set the folders and other database connections that you want to index for searching. You can review the current connections in the Register Folders and Server Connections box. Use the Add and Remove buttons to manage this list of connections. These are used to establish connections to a number of workspace folders, geodatabases, toolboxes, and other resources. Check the option to create thumbnails if you wish to automatically generate thumbnails at index time. Please note that checking this option will slow down the indexing process considerably. Thumbnails generated at index time are temporary thumbnails and will only be used in the search results window. Deleting the index will also delete thumbnails. These thumbnails will not be saved as part of the item description or the metadata for your items. We recommend creating thumbnails as part of documenting your items. See Documenting Items in the Catalog window for more information.
    Index tab
    Here is a list of connections you can manage for ArcGIS search:
    • Folder Connections Folder connections—These are any additional workspace folders to which you have established a connection. You'll see their contents listed under each folder.
    • Personal geodatabases Geodatabase—Used to organize datasets in a file geodatabase.
    • Toolboxes Toolboxes—This node is used to organize and access geoprocessing tools.
    • Interoperability Connections Interoperability connections—Used to access a number of special data formats in the optional Data Interoperability extension product. This is used to access Safe Software's FME product for GIS data interoperability.
    • Database Server Connections Connections for administering geodatabases)—Used to connect as the administrator to geodatabases that are stored and managed in SQL Server Express.
    • Database Connections Making a database connection to enterprise DBMS's—Used to connect to databases and enterprise geodatabases.
  2. On the General tab, you can set spatial search options, and enable built-in and user-defined synonyms.
    General tab
  3. On the Advanced tab, you can review and set Search Services in the Register Enterprise Search Services box. Use the Add and Remove buttons to manage the search service list of connections.
    Advanced tab