Wednesday, February 01, 2012

How to configure Windows 7 to natively launch applications via custom keyword shortcuts

This article describes a way to configure Windows 7 to launch applications and websites from the “Search programs and files” field in the Windows 7 Start menu using custom-defined shortcut keywords – without using the mouse at all.  This is similar to the functionality of 3rd-party utilities such as Slickrun, Launchy, and Quicksilver, but with this method, no 3rd-party software is required!

As an example, this technique could be used to set up the keyword “ff” as a shortcut for launching the Firefox browser.  You would be able to launch Firefox from anywhere in Windows simply by typing the following four keystrokes:

[Windows Key]

Doing this would bring up the Windows start menu and enter “ff” into the “Search programs and files” field; after having followed the steps detailed in the remainder of this post, Windows will recognize “ff” as a “Program”, and therefore will give it the focus automatically; you can then just press Enter to launch “ff”, which is configured as a shortcut for launching Firefox.  This is shown in the highlighted portions of this screen capture of the Windows 7 Start menu:


Step 1. Create a “Shortcuts” folder

Create a new folder named Shortcuts at location:

%appdata%\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\

The folder doesn’t have to be named Shortcuts; you can use something else if you like. 

Note that because this folder is created under the Start Menu\Programs folder, this new folder and its contents will show up as a folder on your Start menu. 

Why does the folder need to be created at this location?  This needs to be done so that Windows will recognize shortcut files placed in that folder as “Programs” when the shortcut filename is keyed in to the “Search programs and files” field on the Start menu.

Step 2. Create a shortcut to the new Shortcuts folder

This step is optional, but to make things easier, I suggest that the first new shortcut you create is a shortcut to bring up the Shortcuts folder itself in a new Windows Explorer window. 

One way to do this is to manually open up an Explorer window (Shortcut key: [Windows Key] + e) and enter in that window’s address bar:

%appdata%\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Shortcuts

Then, drag the yellow folder icon from the left side of the address bar into the main area of the window to create a shortcut to that folder. 

Finally, rename the shortcut (Shortcut key: [F2]) from Shortcuts – Shortcut to just shortcuts

Once this is done, you can test the new shortcut by pressing [Windows Key] to open up the Start menu, typing in “shortcuts”, and pressing [Enter].  A new Windows Explorer window should open, showing the Shortcuts folder.

Step 3. Create Application Shortcuts

Now you’re ready to create some shortcuts to run applications!  To create a named shortcut to launch a particular application, just create a shortcut to that application in the Shortcuts folder you created, and name the shortcut file to whatever you want the keyword to launch the application to be.  Then, to test the shortcut, press [Windows Key], key in the shortcut name, and press [Enter]. 

One easy way to create a shortcut to a particular program is to use the right mouse button to drag and drop that program’s entry from the Start menu to a Windows Explorer window that’s open to the Shortcuts folder.  After dropping the item, select “Create Shortcuts Here” from the context menu that appears.

After keying in the shortcut name (and before pressing enter), you should see your custom shortcut appear immediately as the first item in the list of real-time search results that Windows generates under the “Programs” heading.  Since Windows considers the shortcut to be a “Program,” pressing enter causes Windows to run that program without you even needing to arrow key down to that search result in the Start menu – Windows selects it for you by default.  Nice!

One caveat: For me, for certain single-character shortcuts (such as “g”, but not “n”), Windows doesn’t recognize the shortcut file as a “Program” in the start menu. If a given single-character shortcut doesn’t work for you, I’d suggest trying a two (or more) character shortcut keyword instead; all two-or-more-character shortcut keywords that I’ve tried have worked for me.

To give you some ideas on getting started with creating your own shortcuts, here are just a few of the shortcuts that I currently have set up on my local PC:

ecl Eclipse IDE
ff Firefox
irfan IrfanView
n2 Notepad2
pdn Paint.NET
timer Orzeszek Timer
vs Visual Studio IDE
wmp Windows Media Player

These shortcuts even work with parameters, for example, with my configured “timer” shortcut, I can key in “timer 5m” to start Orzeszek Timer running with a 5-minute timer.

Step 4. Create Website Shortcuts

You can also set up shortcuts to launch a particular website in your default web browser.  To do this, just create a new shortcut from Windows Explorer in your Shortcuts folder (right-click | New | Shortcut), and in the item location field, paste the URL of the target website (such as “”, without the quotes).  Then, name the new shortcut with the keyword you’d like to type to launch that website, and that’s it!

Open Question: Websites with Parameters

One thing I have not yet figured out how to do using this technique is to elegantly set up a shortcut to launch a website with a particular parameter.   For example, I’d like to be able to key in “g search terms” to bring up Google in a new tab and the default browser, and run a search for search terms.  That is, a new browser tab would be opened with the url term.  If anyone knows of an elegant way to do this (without resorting to the use of a 3rd-party background program like Slickrun), please leave a comment and let me know!

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