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Organizing Gmail with Labels

Gmail’s “Why Use Gmail?” page suggests that “storing mail in folders with subfolders and nested sub-sub folders is not a productive way to spend your day.” Because search is Google’s primary strength, they encourage users of their free email service to perform a search query for an email of interest rather than actively organize their email and navigate through a folder hierarchy. In this way, Google is untraining many computer users who are so immersed in the file, folder, and cabinet paradigm of organization that they find other organization techniques incomprehensible.

Finding a particular email among the thousands that can be stored on Google’s email service can prove challenging, especially when more than 80% of all email falls under a small number of topics. Keyphrase queries fail to deliver results when items are not palpable to search engines. A typical email received by a network operator is presented here:

From: sales@gmail.com Mailed-By: gmail.com
To: stevedoria@gmail.com
Date: Nov 7, 2006 7:32 AM
Subject: login

Here’s the login info for the client we were just talking about:
66.240.188.151
u89746517
pw17!_ghty

Meaningful queries to dig up this particular email seem to be “login,” “login info,” and “from:sales@gmail.com.” This being the typical kind of email received by a network operator, such queries would provide a large number of results.

The difficulty of tracking emails as encouraged by Google’s free email service has reached a level where certain technical teams have considered reverting to traditional email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird. After all, the teams are very familiar with the email folder schemes in these applications and organization has not been much of a problem before. These are proven email solutions after all.

One problem with traditional email clients comes to mind. Sometimes, email messages discuss multiple topics. These email messages, for example, may ask for a follow up on client XYZ while providing a task list for client ABC. In this scenario, the email is concerned with both ABC and XYZ. A system that uses the file and folder paradigm would require that the email message be filed into a folder for either ABC or XYZ. Using a more general folder such as “Tasks” or making copies of the email are also solutions. Taken to an extreme, the use of a general folder constitutes one folder, named “Email,” for all email. By reductio ad absurdum, the use of general folders is a less than optimal solution. Generating copies of an email is also suboptimal, because it requires more email to be filed by its very nature.

One feature of Google’s Gmail may help overcome organization difficulties that are faced when relying solely on search queries. Labels offer similar advantages to those provided by email folders of traditional email clients. They also overcome some disadvantages of email folders that were mentioned earlier.

Labels provide the grouping feature that is common with email folders. People who rely on a folder hierarchy for organization are still out of luck as Gmail has yet to implement a hierarchical system for email labels. They may be able to get around this limitation by setting a naming convention. Labels such as “CLIENT-abc” and “CLIENT-xyz” can be used. With labels, all emails that pertain to a particular subject can be viewed in a similar way that folders allow.

Emails in Gmail can be tagged with multiple labels. This allows an email that covers multiple and possibly unrelated topics to be placed in multiple groups. This feature is not directly supported by the file and folder paradigm. The time needed to label email messages may be comparable to that of filing email into folders, but the advantages of email labels should be sufficient defense against transitioning to traditional email clients on the basis of organization.

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