What's up with Outlook Rules?

Why doesn’t Outlook find the messages you expect?

Getting an Outlook rule to work with an incoming message can be an exercise in frustration because the on-screen instructions aren’t very clear.

Outlook rules let you automate the process of managing incoming messages. For example, tagging or moving messages from a particular person or company as soon as they arrive.

Unfortunately the default settings from Microsoft aren’t very helpful. They are narrowly defined, mostly for in-house use with Exchange Server and not a lot of use out here in the real world.

All emails have a FROM line that normally has two parts – the senders name and the senders email address. Despite appearances, Outlook rules only apply to the email address not the name component.

Have a look at this example.

Outlook - sender rule default image from What

We’ve selected a message from Claude Almer then Home | Rules displays an option ‘Always Move Messages From: Claude Almer’.

From the wording of that rule you’d expect to make a rule for all messages from the sender ‘Claude Almer’ but it does NOT. Outlook will make a rule for messages from the email address – not the displayed name.

That’s isn’t clear even from the Manage Rules summary which looks like this:

Outlook - sender rule summary image from What

You have to click on the name link and then the name again to see the email address that’s actually being used.

Similarly the rule template (offered in the list under New Rule) is ‘Move messages from someone to a folder’ but should really read ‘…. from an email address ….’.

Why does this matter? Many people have multiple email addresses, commonly one from an ISP and other from a webmail service. If you setup a rule, as prompted by Outlook, it will only work for one email address and even that address isn’t clearly displayed! Should the sender start using a new or different address, the Outlook rule won’t work and it’s hard to figure out why.

Make a rule for a senders name

So how do you make an Outlook rule that will work for messages from someone’s name? That simple task is surprisingly difficult.

None of the rule templates are applicable, despite what they say.

You have to start from a blank rule for messages received. The conditions options are many …

Outlook - conditions list image from What

But none of them will do what we want!

The closest is “with specific words in the sender’s address” but that only applies to the email address, not the name attached to it.

The only option we can see to catch incoming messages according to the senders name is ‘with specific words in the message header’ but that’s not always a good choice because it will include instances in the CC line or even subject of a message.

For example, a rule to look for ‘Fred Dagg’ in the message header will detect messages from ‘Fred Dagg’ but also messages with the name in the subject (eg “Fred Dagg has a birthday soon”) or if his name is CC’d in a message to you.

Why hasn’t Microsoft provided an option ‘with specific words in the sender name’ or similar? Who knows … it’s one of those mysteries that mere paying customers have to live with.