Adding Tags to the OS X Address Book

One of my very first experiences with Mac OS X was watching Cindy Li update her Address Book with all the business cards she had accumulated on day 1 of the @media 2005 conference in London. The simplicity and elegance of such a mundane but common task struck a chord with me, leading to my switch to the Mac very shortly thereafter.

In all the years that I’ve been a Mac user, now, I’ve used Address Book to pleasantly manage my contacts but there are a couple of things that I’ve found increasingly lacking about it. One of them, in particular, is making it more useful as a tool for managing business contacts in an efficient and flexible manner.

The primary Address Book use case for me is searching through it for someone with a particular trait: a designer, a programmer, an investor, friends in the area, people in cities I’m planning travel to and would like to meet up with, et cetera. These are all traits that would be best expressed by a tagging mechanism: I would tag people with their primary skills and passions, their related interests and their geographical location (among other things). The problem is, Address Book has no support for tags, and no real plugin architecture to add it. The only thing it has is the Notes field which you can stuff full of meta-data about a person, so how do you take advantage of that?

The obvious solution is to just write out your own tags in the Notes field, but you can’t just write the words on their own: searching through your entire AB for words like “product” or “design” can lead to ambiguous results, such as (part of) a company name or an AIM or e-mail address. Using hash tags (“#design”) doesn’t work because the hash sign gets ignored. Fortunately, there is something that works: the hyphen!

Prefixing your tags with a hyphen allows you to do functional tag searches in Address Book that exclude normal occurrences of the words. They’ll still include hyphenated URLs like, but it’s a big improvement nonetheless. And, you can search for multiple tags separated by spaces.

So if, like me, you want to organize your contacts in a slightly easier, faster and more flexible manner than using countless of groups, tag them with hyphen-prefixed tags in the Notes field. You don’t have to go into Edit mode, and using newlines between tags creates a nice listed overview for each person, too, e.g:


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