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January 13, 2009

Gmail Is Different. Here's What You Need to Know

Most people find Gmail confusing because they don't understand basic features like labels, archiving, filters. So you'll hear them asking for folders or wondering how to remove messages from the inbox.

This knol written by gravi_t, an active member of the Gmail group, does a good job at explaining the features that make Gmail different.

Imagine this:

- each email is a piece of paper
- labels are post-it notes, sticky notes
- there are default labels, like "Inbox", "Sent items", "Trash" ("Bin"), "Spam"
- you can also create labels (i.e. sticky notes)

This means that - unlike in other email services - you do not put the emails into folders. You actually attach labels to the emails.

Only one copy of your emails:

- you only just have ONE existing copy of your emails
- no matter how many labels (post-its) you stick on them
- you can attach as many labels to this one copy as you want, just as you can stick a lot of post-it notes to the same one piece of paper

This is why your email disappears from everywhere when you delete it; because deleting the email means deleting the "piece of paper"!!

The knol is licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial and Google should use some of its content in the "welcome" message.

Tip: To find when you created a Gmail account, go to "All mail", click on "Oldest" and you'll see the first messages you've received. You'll need this information to get access to a compromised Gmail account.

{ Thanks, Anonymous. }


  1. Lol, I loved GMail since day one. I converted only a hand full of people. Your first paragraph sums it all up, "Most people find Gmail confusing because they don't understand basic features like labels, archiving, filters. So you'll hear them asking for folders or wondering how to remove messages from the inbox.".

    1. Yes - no wonder a lot of people havent converted over - since they dont want to have to learn another dumb system

  2. from Gmail Team gmail-noreply
    to Daniel García coolxeo
    date Thu, Jun 17, 2004 at 12:08 PM
    subject Gmail is different. Here's what you need to know.

  3. Hey, thanks for the endorsement! :)

  4. gmail confuse my mailbox because it convert into a single "thread" (conversation) every mails I received that has same object :-(

  5. With the search, I don't see why you'd need a lot of tags anyway...

  6. That's how Opera's mail client (called M2) works.

  7. "each email is a piece of paper" By default, pieces of paper don't have notes on them. When I look at my desk, I can see which ones have no notes on them and which ones do.

    So, how can I find the emails in gmail that don't have labels? Without that one feature, I cannot use gmail along with any automated notification system, email discussion list, etc. because I would have no way to filter the automated emails which are easy to label from those emails that are most important but least easily labeled because they're written by human beings instead of pieces of code.

    Putting notifications, for instance Google's own Sites notifications, into a single "thread" is also horribly wrong. Today's update to PageA is not part of a conversation from last year's update to PageA, at least not in my view.

  8. It's not because we don't understand labels that we want folders, it's that we simply just want folders! Labels != Folders.

  9. @Anonymous - January 13, 2009 10:00 PM PDT

    You can find the emails that don't have labels in 'All Mail'
    You can search and exclude existing labelled email like this '-label:HolidaySnaps'
    unfortunately there's no easy way to exclude *all* the labelled mails - ie to find just the un-labelled ones without writing a long search excluding each label individually

    ps: if you're looking for a document in a pile of paper, i hope you know more about it than 'it's one i haven't stuck a note on' ;-)

    pps: yes, i too would like to be able to tune the conversation settings including specifically moving a message out of a conversation and also merging two conversations (conversation heading would need to be seperated from message subject, though, so it might be a massive system change) :-/

  10. @Anonymous - January 14, 2009 2:01 AM PDT

    yes labels != folders, but ...
    if you could put labels into a hierarchy then
    Folders would be a Subset of Labels

    Some people(not necessarily many, but definitely me) specifically want *not* to have folders

  11. I have caught every one of the people I have converted to Gmail using the delete function instead of archive.


  12. What if you've already deleted the first piece of mail you ever received?

  13. Yahoo mail is better, but it didn't get better until after I got used to using Gmail.

    Dragging and dropping to a folder is easier, quicker, and more useful than labels as far as I can tell.

    I don't often use labels and don't find that the ones I do use offer any great benefit.

    I do delete mail. Every day.

    I guess I should really switch back to Yahoo.

    1. I agree - adding labels onto mail is yet another elaborate enhancement on a simple task of putting mail into different drawers ( or folders) which has already been proved to be sueful and successful ( Thunderbird ) -re inventing how to sort emails means everyone has to apply x hours to this foolish wasteful task and accept that several mails will get trashed as you soft through the docs on how - tos...

    2. a degree in computer related activity - yet my third attempt to organise my gmail has still failed to organise mails and move them into subfolders ( ok - or OUT OF SIGHT ! whatever )

  14. In my opinion Gmail is great. The problem is that everyone wants their mail every place they go.

    It would be nice if their was a way to make Outlook handle Email the same way as google.

    It would also be nice if their was a CROSS PLATFORM mobile client which handled Gmail properly.

    If everything was uniform perhaps it would be a bit easier to seamlessly work gmail.

  15. Actually, if I understand Creative Commons correctly, Google couldn't use text from the Knol article without specific permission from gravi_t. Google is a commercial entity, so its use of the text - unless specifically permitted in writing by gravi_t - would violate the "non-commercial" aspect of the license.

  16. i love labels, and quicklinks, much better than folders when you get used it

  17. No, the default labels are like folders, because a message can't be in the Inbox, All Mail, Spam, and Trash at the same time.

    Correct me if I'm wrong.

  18. Not quite. Gmail excludes from most views the messages labeled as Spam and Trash, but this is just a display issue. A message can be in the Trash and still have custom labels. The most significant limitation is that if you mark as spam a message from the Trash, the Trash label will be removed.

  19. I used GMail for years and I still delete email often. Sure it's unlimited space, but that doesn't mean you need to be a packrat and save emails that will never have any use.

  20. What workarounds, kludges can people try who prefer sorting their gmail inbox alphabetically by subject?... besides forwarding copies of incoming messages to Yahoo! mail, saving the gmail copy in the gmail inbox.

  21. gmail is ridiculous confusing for sending replies or for forwarding. It is impossible to know which 'send' relates to which of the emails, stickies, whatever. Why can't the designers ensure that the 'send' button is crystal-clearly attached to a particular mail - instead of sitting between two mails, etc?

    1. Thank You....Gmail has sucked so much time from me trying to do the most basic e-functions like replying. Someone emails you ... you want to reply ... even send....

      go figure...

  22. It's the forwarding and replying of emails that confuses me too. I'm scarred of forwarding an entire thread of a conversation to somebody who I don't wish to see part of the thread.

  23. I'm glad I found this because I can't seem to get the hang of Gmail, either! The comments above about labels and folders do help me somewhat, though I still want my folders. I can "see" the organization with folders. And, I agree with dovis and ivan regarding the sending replies and forwarding--it's confusing to me!

  24. I use the "getting things done" method to organise my emails and this means clearing my inbox and using folders. Its just how I work. I can't do that anymore!! I don't like the lables, I don't feel like I can use my inbox as a means of helping me know what task to do next.

  25. g mail is very confusing -you login to your mail page and click the doc or web or reader or calender page - a new page opens with your email address on the top with a sighn out button . when you press sighnout in any of those pages - it makes no sense because u can still see your mail page still sighned you have to sighnout each page you are opening through gmail.its very very unsecure.They have to make simplified and user friendly version - otherwise - iam not ready to leave yahooooooooo

  26. @Sivashanmugam it's not insecure. When you sign out one of them you are signed out of the account :-P
    It could probably do with refreshing the other pages automatically when that happens, but it does happen - just try using them & stop jumping to conclusions ;-)

  27. gmail is dependable and efficient, but I agree 100% it so damn confusing especially with replies and forwards. It has a messy feel to it. I prefer folders as well. A piece of paper with a bunch of stick it notes is sloppy.

  28. Forward button hard to find
    Archive button hard to find
    Next button...none
    Previous button...none
    Preview Pane...none
    Hate keyboard shortcuts
    WE WANT MORE BUTTONS...and a preview below pane.
    Gmail needs a complete overhall.

  29. No Next Button

    No Previous Button

    Archive Button Hard To Find.

    No Preview Pane. Why do we need to open an email before deciding on an action?

    I do not like using keyboard shortcuts, we NEED MORE BUTTONS to click and choose from.

    Using for 2 years, lots of good stuff, maybe too much, it's still too confusing

    IDEA: Have 2 different Gmails:

    A simple version, for those looking to read, compose, and delete...done!

    Or the current advanced version for those that want to archive, label, star, converse, buzz, chat, labs, tasks, invite a friend, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

  30. I have been using the Internet and email for about 10 yrs now but I have never been so confused as with using gmail. What is wrong with gmail??

    It took me some 30 minutes to find the mail I received from a friend. This doesn't feel good! extremely frustrated. Now I have to find my important emails and star them for future access. I don't think it was like this back then. This is what I think, people try to improve their software or system but they mess it up altogether. The same thing is true with Yahoo. The majority of people including me does not want the new interface. But they try to force you to use it.

    "Sometimes old is best" is true. May be I will have the answers from the comments but I don't think I have the time for that.