The Spotlight menu, at the far right of your menu bar, is even more useful in OS X Lion because it offers new ways to work with search results. Click the magnifying glass icon or press Cmd-spacebar to open the menu, and type your search term. Then use the following tips to go from searching to doing.

Control which categories you see

Want to see PDFs but not music or video files in Spotlight’s findings? You can control what appears in its results menu by going to System Preferences and selecting Spotlight. Click the Search Results tab and check the categories you want listed. (This limits only what is shown in the Spotlight menu, not the results in a Finder window search.) You can also drag a category up or down to change the order (see Control your categories screenshot). You might, for example, want presentations listed at the top. The Spreadsheets category is new; it hides or shows both Numbers and Excel documents.

Take a Quick Look at files

If you’re not sure whether a result in the Spotlight menu is what you’re looking for, take a quick look at the item. Point to it in the results list and a Quick Look pop-over appears next to it. This means you won’t have to head to the Finder to open an item to see such things as images, the contents of a document, Address Book contact information, iCal events, a font sample, or an email message. Use the up or down arrow keys to navigate the results list, and pause on any item you want to see.

Peek at your Top Hit

The Spotlight Menu automatically picks a Top Hit for your search, displays it at the head of your results and selects it. That’s convenient when you want to open the Top Hit because all you have to do is press Return, but what if you want to preview the item first?

Pointing to the Top Hit, or using an arrow key to move away and then back again, displays the pop-over, but there’s quicker way: simply hold down the Cmd key.

Quickly scroll through a multi-page document

If you think that you’ve found the correct Word document, spreadsheet or PDF in a Spotlight menu search, but aren’t quite sure, don’t worry. There’s no need to waste time launching an application just to look through the document. You can scroll through any multi-page document right inside the Preview. Slide the cursor onto the pop-over and use the scrollbar that appears or, if you have a trackpad that supports gestures, use a two-finger drag.

In the Spotlight preference pane, check the categories you want in the results list, and drag them into the order you prefer

Preview movies or music

Checking that a movie or sound file in Spotlight’s results menu is the correct one before you open it is easy. Simply position your cursor anywhere in the Quick Look pop-over for a movie, or over the musical note icon, to see a Play button. Click it to play and click it again to pause. You can stop playback by moving to another item in the menu or by closing the menu.

Bonus tip: Hold down the Cmd key when a movie or sound file is showing in the pop-over to get additional information about it; usually the file’s name appears, followed by its file path (the spot where it’s stored on your computer). Press C-Option to instantly see the path.

Go to the internet with your preferred search engine

Lion’s new Spotlight menu command, Search Web For, opens Safari and starts a web search for whatever you’ve entered in the Spotlight menu. Control whether the search is through Google, Bing or Yahoo in Safari’s preferences: Choose Safari > Preferences, click the General icon, and choose your search engine from the Default Search Engine menu.

Drag items out of the menu to use them immediately

You typically search for something because you want to use it, and not just look at it. Lion makes that easier by letting you drag an item from the Spotlight menu and drop it wherever you need it.

Moving the item to the desktop or a Finder window copies it to the new location – a big plus-sign cursor will appear as you drag, indicating that you’re making a copy. You can even drag a found item to the Dock.

The best thing, however, is that you can drag something from the menu and drop it into a document or onto an application icon. Any program that accepts dragged-in material will welcome an item moved from the menu. For example, you can drag a photograph from your Spotlight search results into a waiting Pages document, and if you drag a PDF onto Mail’s Dock icon, a new message window opens with the PDF attached.

Hover over a music or movie file listed in the Spotlight menu to see a preview complete with a Play button

Create quick access aliases

An alias, which is created in the Finder by selecting an item and choosing File > Make Alias, is a link to the original file. Whenever you double-click the alias, the original item opens. This means that if, for example, you have to bury certain files in a nested set of project folders, you can place their aliases in more convenient locations.

Alternatively, Cmd-Option-drag an item in the Finder to create its alias. In Lion, you can Cmd-Option-drag something right out of the Spotlight menu to do the same. You’ll see a curved-arrow cursor as you drag. So find the item you want and drop an alias of it on the desktop for subsequent easy access.

Easily use Address Book info

Not only can you preview an entire Address Book entry in your Spotlight results, you can also use shortcuts to work with some of its information. Hover over the item in the Spotlight menu to reveal the Quick Look pop-over. Then, in the preview, click on the label next to a phone number, email address, or physical address to see a brief menu of appropriate options.

If you click on a phone number, the menu will include options to display it in large type or open FaceTime. Click on an email address, and you’re given the option to send an email, open FaceTime, send updated contact information, or start a Finder-based Spotlight search for either email messages to or from that address, or attachments sent from that address. If you click on a physical address, you can jump to a Google map of the location, copy the URL for the map, or copy a mailing label.

That last option is a great timesaver. It grabs the information from multiple items (first and last names, street, city, and postcode ) and places them on the Clipboard. This makes it easy to paste someone’s name and address into a document or an email message.