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Managing Microsoft Outlook search folder functionality

Discover the pros and cons of using Microsoft Outlook search folders and learn how to configure group policies that control search folder usage.

Microsoft Outlook search folders simplify email management, because they let users sort messages with customized mailbox search queries. For example, a user could create a search folder to organize messages with attachments, or email from a particular person. But, if used excessively, Outlook search folders can place a heavy performance burden on Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server resources. This tip outlines the pros and cons of using Microsoft Outlook search folders and explains how to configure group policies that control search folder usage.

Pros of Microsoft Outlook search folders

One benefit of search folders is that Microsoft Outlook updates them automatically. As new messages arrive, Outlook analyzes them and creates links to the messages within the appropriate search folders.

To an end user, it appears as though the email actually resides within the search folder. However, the message still resides in the email folder to which it was delivered. Search folders display the results of a dynamic search.

You can created search folders in Microsoft Outlook by choosing the File -> New -> Search Folder command. You will then see a list of several predefined search folders you can create. You also have the option to create custom search folders.

Cons of Microsoft Outlook search folders

Microsoft Outlook search folders can be helpful, but they do have a downside. Search folders can be resource-intensive because every inbound message is analyzed to see if it fits query criteria.

For example, issues can arise when users create search folders for a specific, short-term purpose, but then don't delete them when they're no longer needed.

Unused search folders drain system resources by analyzing every new email message that arrives unecessarily. You can reduce search folder resource consumption by preventing dormant search folders from performing queries.

If you want to take more severe measures, you can limit the number of search folders that a user is allowed to use, or you can prevent the use of search folders completely.

Accessing Microsoft Outlook search folder settings in Group Policy Editor

Search folder functionality is controlled administratively at the group-policy level. The Group Policy Editor doesn't contain group policy settings related to Microsoft Outlook. But you can add Outlook-related settings to a group policy by importing the administrative template. Keep in mind -- this method will only work for users running Outlook 2003.

More on this topic

  • Get Organized with Microsoft Outlook 2003's Search Folders
  • How to enforce Microsoft Outlook cached mode via group policy
  • Forcing Microsoft Outlook options using Active Directory Group Policy
  • How to search multiple Outlook subfolders simultaneously
  • Email policy management tips and resources

The necessary template is included in the Office 2003 Service Pack 3 Administrative Template (ADM), OPAs and Explain Text Update. The download consists of a 379 KB file named ORKSP2AT.

  1. After downloading this file, double click on it to launch the Setup program.
  2. When Setup starts, accept the end-user license agreement and specify a path for the extracted files.
  3. Click OK to being the file-extraction process.
  4. When the process is complete, close Setup and use the Group Policy Editor to open the policy you want to modify. The method for doing this varies depending on which group policy you want to modify.
  5. To modify the Default Domain Policy, open the Active Directory Users and Computers console.
  6. Right click on the listing for the domain for which the policy applies, and select Properties.
  7. Select the Group Policy tab and choose the Default Domain Policy.
  8. Click Edit and Windows will open a Group Policy Editor with the Default Domain Policy loaded.
  9. Navigate through the group policy console tree to User Configuration -> Administrative Templates.
  10. Right click on the Administrative Templates container and select Add/Remove Templates from the shortcut menu to view a list of installed policy templates.
  11. Click Add and navigate to the folder from which you extracted the files.
  12. Select the OUTLK11.ADM file and click Open.
  13. Next, click Close to load the Outlook 2003 administrative template in the Group Policy Editor.
  14. Once you have loaded the necessary administrative template, navigate through the group policy console tree to User Configuration -> Administrative Templates -> Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 -> Search Folders to access the the different policy settings related to Outlook search folders, as shown in Figure A.

    Figure A
    Figure A: The Outlook 2003 administrative template lets you regulate Outlook using the group policy.

Configuring Microsoft Outlook search folder group policies

Keep Search Folders Offline: This group policy option has a misleading name because it doesn't actually have anything to do with keeping search folders offline. Instead, it allows you to specify a keep-alive period for offline search folders in Outlook cached mode.

Each time a user accesses a Microsoft Outlook search folder, its clock resets to zero (0). That clock accrues time until the user accesses the search folder again, at which point it is reset to zero (0). If the clock reaches 30 days, and the search folder has not been used in that amount of time, it is considered dormant.

When a search folder becomes dormant, its status is displayed in italics new email queries cease. All previously existing query results are still retained within the search folder, but no new queries are performed.

To reactivate a dormant search folder, a user simply has to click on it to reset its clock to zero (0). A new query will then run against all messages in the mail folder.

When you enable the Keep Search Folders Offline policy, you must enter the number of days that search folders should be kept alive in offline or cached mode. As you enter this value, keep these two issues in mind:

  • You must enter a value that is appropriate for your organization. It is recommended to set this value to either 30 or 60 days. But you can set the time period to zero (0), which causes search folders to remain dormant. Search folder queries are only refreshed when a search folder is accessed, and then the folder immediately goes dormant.

  • This particular policy only applies to offline or cached folders. If you want to set a live value on online folders, then you must modify the Keep Search Folders in Exchange Online policies, shown in Figure A.

Default Search Folders and Startup: When you enable this group policy, you have the option of preventing Microsoft Outlook from creating default search folders at startup.

Maximum Number of Online Search Folders per Mailbox: Enabling this group policy allows you to specify the maximum number of search folders that Exchange Server will query for each mailbox. If you have users who create excessive numbers of search folders, then using this policy is a way to prevent those users from consuming excessive system resources with search folder queries.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Exchange Server, and has previously received Microsoft's MVP award for Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once responsible for the Department of Information Management at Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, Brien has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at

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