If you’ve ever battled a big data set, you probably fought with Excel. You aren't alone—nearly everyone who deals with data uses Microsoft Office’s industry-leading spreadsheet software .

Since Excel is ubiquitous, you can end up working in many massive spreadsheets—your own, your colleagues', and your clients'. Trying to find one piece of information among many spreadsheets in many different folders is time-consuming and stressful.

Searching within Excel will only show you results in the spreadsheet you have open. Desktop search engines like Spotlight (iOS) and Cortana (Windows 10) can help by searching across documents.

Our product, Atlas Recall, is also well suited to the task. Recall incorporates search results that the other products don’t, and displays those results in an intuitive, easy-to-browse interface that incorporates screenshots of the last version of each result.

How to Search Inside an Excel Spreadsheet

Excel’s limited search capabilities can make it hard to track down individual data points. For example, say you are looking at a spreadsheet of basketball statistics, and want to find stats for a particular player.

If you are in the correct sheet, you could search for the player's name.

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That’s not a bad result. However, this is how Excel does when you search for what you're really looking for: "Curry stats."

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These results aren’t as good. Excel relies on discrete search terms inside a spreadsheet for its search. Nothing in this file except the filename refers to Steph Curry’s stats, so Excel was thrown off.

Of course, that’s not a knock on Excel. By the time you get to the right Excel spreadsheet, you should have a pretty good idea of how to find what you’re looking for.

But how do you find the correct Excel spreadsheet to search in the first place?

Your operating system’s desktop search app should make finding the right spreadsheet much easier.

How to Search Excel on Mac or iOS Devices 

iOS's search tool is Spotlight. It’s the program you access when you click the magnifying glass in the upper right of your Mac's screen. It can search inside Excel files.

Spotlight does a reasonably good job with this search. It found a document containing the search term, and it can show a preview of that document.

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However, the right document was far down the list of results, and the preview Spotlight generated didn’t show any of the relevant data.  With the search functionality being so limited, you have to remember the exact name of the file you’re attempting to search for before finding a reasonable match.

That’s a problem if you have spreadsheets with similar names but different data sets.

Imagine trying to find invoice information from an account you closed who-knows-how-many years ago. You might have a spreadsheet titled “Invoices 09-10” or “Invoices 10-11” for each fiscal year.  Spotlight wouldn’t be able to look inside those various spreadsheets. You’d have a hard time choosing between them, and would probably have to open each and look through them.

Here’s how another desktop search tool, Microsoft’s Cortana, does with this test.

How to Search Excel on Windows Devices

Cortana, is built into Windows 10 and all mobile versions of Windows. It’s the search tool you access when you use voice commands or use the search box in the Start menu.

Cortana is capable of searching inside Excel spreadsheets, as this test shows.

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After a few clicks, this is where you’ll arrive. You’d have to expand the results in the search window before coming to this point. As the slider shows you, the NBA Stats 2016-17 spreadsheet is near the end of the results.

Cortana allows users to preview files by hovering their cursor over an item, but the preview (which vanishes during screenshots) didn’t arrive at Curry’s stats. The limited preview feature makes distinguishing between spreadsheets difficult.

How to Search Excel with Atlas Recall

Atlas Recall, a new search product, is available free for Mac users, with a Windows 10 beta version coming soon. Recall logs your interactions with web pages, documents, and other files in a private, secure cloud.

It then uses powerful technology to find specific pieces of data in documents—including documents stored in the cloud. Recall can show you the last version of a spreadsheet you edited, even if you can’t remember whether you edited it on your hard drive or Google Drive.

Recall can search all your devices and find whatever piece of data you’re looking for, even if it’s located at the bottom of a spreadsheet you worked on months ago.

Here's how this search looks in Atlas Recall.

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Atlas remembers several spreadsheets and web pages to find all Steph-Curry-related pages you've accessed—ever.

It’s laid out in a fashion that allows for quick previews. Finding the right spreadsheet is no problem with Atlas’s intuitive layout.

Atlas even works when you search for “Curry Stats.”

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If you need more detailed information, Atlas can even pull up a detailed preview of a document before you open it—highlighting the region relating to your search.

Recall can supplement or even supplant traditional ways of finding data. Within Excel, searching spreadsheets is only possible if you already have them open. File searches like Spotlight and Cortana can find information within a spreadsheet, but won't find related documents or web pages.

Recall remembers not only where your data is, but the documents and files that relate to that data.