31 Essential Gmail Tips

Thursday Dec 18th 2008 by Cynthia Harvey
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The quick guide to filtering your Gmail, sending and importing from other email accounts, ensuring your privacy, and more.

If you're one of the millions of people with Gmail accounts, you already know how easy Google's Web-based email is to use. You probably also already know that Gmail organizes messages into conversations, uses Google search technology to search your messages, and comes with an amazing and ever-growing amount of storage space.

However, you may not know that a lot of other unique features are lurking just below the surface. In many cases, a single click in the settings window can turn on features that make Gmail much more user-friendly and set it apart from other Web-based email services.

In fact, Gmail has a lot of features you won't even find in "full-featured" mail clients like Outlook and Thunderbird. Here are 31 of our favorite tips for getting the most out of your Gmail account.

General Account Settings

Some of the most helpful Gmail features are really easy to find: simply click the "Settings" link at the top right of the screen. Under the "General" tab, you'll find a number of tools that can make your life simpler.

1. Language. As you would expect, this option lets you change the default language for Gmail. Not so obviously, changing your default language back to "English (US)" can sometimes fix Gmail bugs. In particular, if you have trouble accessing your calendar from your Inbox, try changing your language settings and see if that solves the problem.

2. Keyboard Shortcuts. To save yourself some time on common Gmail activities, turn on the keyboard shortcuts. Gmail has more than 40 keyboard shortcuts built in, and you can see the entire list in the Help section. Some examples: type "c" to compose a new message, "r" to reply, or "#" to delete a message.

3. Personal Level Indicators. Did Aunt Phyllis send you a personal message or is this just another list of jokes that she sent to her entire contact list? You'll know at a glance if you turn on this indicator. No arrows mean the message was sent to a mailing list, a single arrow means it was sent to your personal address as well as other recipients, and a double arrow means the message was sent only to you.

4. Snippets. In addition to the subject line, Gmail can also show you the first few words of a message. Turn snippets on for a sneak preview or off to see the subject line only.

Gmail Labs

The "Labs" tab on your Gmail account settings has additional features that aren't quite ready for prime time (or aren't used by enough people to warrant inclusion in the normal settings). New features are added frequently, so check back often. In the meantime, these are some of our favorites.

5. Forgotten Attachment Detector. We've all known the embarrassment of forgetting to actually attach the document we meant to send with a message. If you mention an attachment but don't attach anything, this feature brings up a reminder prompt.

6. Mail Goggles. If you're likely to send mail while you have your beer goggles on, Mail Goggles helps save you some embarrassment. If you're not sober enough to complete simple math problems, Mail Goggles won't let you send mail. You can set the feature to work only on certain times and days so that you won't have to do math every time you send mail.

7. Tasks. For those who miss the Task List from Microsoft Outlook, this feature fills the gap. Unlike some other "to do" lists, Gmail lets you convert emails directly into tasks so that you don't have to re-type all the information for a project into a new place.

8. Vacation Time. Do you sometimes forget to turn off the vacation auto-reply feature when you return? This feature lets you set up a start and end date so that you'll have one less thing to worry about on those busy days before and after a vacation.

9. Text Messaging (SMS) in Chat. One of Gmail's newest offerings, this feature lets you send or receive text messages from most US phones.

Labels and Filters

Most email clients use folders that allow you to sort your mail. Gmail takes this concept one step further by allowing you to apply labels. The difference is that while a message can only be placed in one folder, it can have as many labels as you like. For example, if your bank sends you a notice about your auto loan, you can label it "bills" and "car." Then whether you look at all of your bills or all of your car-related mail, the message will appear in both places.

10. Label Before You Archive. When you click the archive button at the bottom of the screen, the selected message disappears from your inbox. If it isn't labeled, you won't see it again unless you click the "All Mail" link on the left side of the screen. However, if you label your message before you archive it, it will show up when you click on the label name on the left side of the screen.

11. Use Filters to Add Labels. Instead of adding labels by hand, let the filter feature do it for you. From the "Settings" menu, click on the "Filters" tab or click the "Create a filter" link next to the search box. You can then apply a label based on a particular from address, to address, subject line, word in the message, or attachment. For example, you can label all of the messages that come from family members as "family," or if you check multiple email accounts from Gmail (see Using Other Accounts below), you can give the messages that come to each account a different label.

12. Use Filters to Forward Messages. You can also set up a filter to forward a message. This is particularly handy if you sometimes get work-related emails at home and want to view them at work. You can also use this feature to make sure your spouse gets a copy of financial or school-related messages.

13. Color-Code Your Labels. You can choose which color applies to various labels. In the label box on the left hand side of your screen, click the box next to a particular label. You can then change the color that goes with that label.

14. View Multiple Labels. If you want to see all of the messages that are labeled both "family" and "photos," it's not immediately obvious how to do so, but it can be done. In the search box type "label:family label:photos" (more on this search technique below). Gmail will show you all the messages with both labels. If you want to see all the messages labeled either "family" or "photos" or both, type "label:family OR label:photos" (OR must be in all caps) in the search box.

15. View Unlabeled Messages. It's also not easy to figure out how to see all of your messages that don't have labels, but there is a workaround. In the search box, type "-label:label1 -label:label2" and so on for all of your label names. Gmail will return all of the messages that don't have any of your labels. If you perform this search frequently, you may want to send yourself a message with the search text so that you can cut and paste.

16. Filter Previously Received Messages. When you set up a filter, don't overlook the box on the last step that allows you to "Apply filter to xx conversations below." By checking the box, you can use your filters to apply labels to the old messages that you import to Gmail, which can be very handy for organization purposes.

Search Tips

One of the best things about Gmail is that it lets you use Google search capabilities to look for older conversations. Here are some tips to make your searches even more fast and effective.

17. Advanced Search Operators. If you want to search only for messages from a particular individual, with a particular label, or other characteristics, you can click "Show Search Options" next to the search box or you can type one or more of the advanced search operators right into the regular search box. For example, type "from:joe" to search for all of your messages from Joe or type "to:john" to find messages sent to John. You can find the complete list of search operators in the Help section.

18. Exclude Search Terms. You can search for messages that don't contain a particular word or don't have certain characteristics by typing a hyphen (-) immediately in front of a word or search operator. For example, "-football" finds all the messages that aren't about football and "-from:Jane" finds all the messages that aren't from Jane. You can also combine them to find all the messages that aren't from Jane and aren't about football.

19. Searching Chat. Gmail also saves your chat sessions, and they'll be included in any general search you perform. If you want to search only your chat sessions, type "is:chat" in the search box along with your other search term(s). And of course, you can exclude chat from your search results by typing "-is:chat" in the box.

20. Find Attachments. Do you find yourself frequently searching your inbox for files that were sent as attachments? Add "has:attachment" to your search terms and Gmail will return only those messages with files attached.

Using Other Accounts

You can receive and send email from other accounts through Gmail. And it's easy to set up. Here's how:

21. Send Messages from Another Address. You can use Gmail to send messages from any account you own, even if you don't receive messages for that account in Gmail. For example, if you need to send a work-related message from home, you can send it from your Gmail account with your work e-mail address in the "from" line. You will need to configure this feature ahead of time though. In the "Settings" screen, click on the "Accounts" tab, then click "Add another email address" in the "Send mail as:" box. Type in your other email address and Gmail will send a confirmation code to that address. Type in the code and you're good to go.

22. Import Messages from Another Account. If you have a POP3 email account, you can have those messages delivered to Gmail, including all of your old messages. Because Gmail has such good search capabilities, this is especially handy if you need to search old messages frequently. From the "Settings" screen, click the "Accounts" tab, then click Add another mail account in the "Get mail from other accounts:" box. Gmail will walk you through the process from there.

23. Check A Web-based Email Account from Gmail. If you use Hotmail, Yahoo! mail, or another free Web-based email service, you won't be able to use the technique described above to check your other email account. Instead, set up your other account to forward your messages to Gmail. That will send any new messages to your Gmail account. If you want to import your old messages, you'll need to forward them individually from your other account to your Gmail account—a time-consuming process, to say the least. However, because Gmail gives you the option of enabling POP and IMAP, it's generally pretty easy to configure other email clients (including Hotmail) to access your Gmail account.

24. Check Gmail from Your Phone or PDA. You can access the mobile version of Gmail, and you can download other Google apps for your phone from the page. In addition, you can find detailed instructions on using Gmail on your phone or PDA from the "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab of the settings.

Miscellaneous

Finally, here are a few more tips for becoming a Gmail super-user that didn't fit into our other categories.

25. Faster Gmail. If you have a slow connection or are having trouble accessing all the features of Gmail (which is more likely if you're using a browser other than Internet Explorer or Firefox), scroll to the bottom of your inbox screen and click the "basic HTML" link. You'll lose some features like spell check, filters, and contacts, but Gmail will load much more quickly.

26. Even Faster Gmail. For the fastest Gmail, use the mobile version; you can access it from your desktop or laptop just as you would from a phone or PDA.

27. Fun With User Names. If you put a plus sign (+) or a period (.) in your Gmail username, Gmail ignores it. In other words, johndoe@gmail.com, john.doe@gmail.com, john+doe@gmail.com, and even j+o.h+n.d+o.e+@gmail.com will all get sent to the same account. This opens up new possibilities for using filters and trying to determine how spammers are getting your email address. For example, if you shop at a particular online store frequently, you can sign up for that site with a variation on your Gmail address and then configure your filters to give all messages that come to that address a particular label. Or if you're concerned that a particular site might not protect your privacy, sign up with a variation on your email address and see if you get any spam sent to that address.

28. Alternate Domain. You can have mail sent to @gmail.com or @googlemailcom. Both domains will be delivered to the same place, which gives you a few more options if you like the idea of using slightly different addresses for different purposes.

29. Gmail Notifier. If you have Google Talk, you'll automatically be notified when you receive a Gmail message. If you don't use Google Talk, you can still receive notifications when a message arrives by downloading the Gmail notifier.

30. Mailing Other Gmail Users. To send a message to another Gmail user, just type that person's username in the "To" box; you don't need to type the @gmail.com part of the address.

31. Check Your Account Activity. Worried that someone else may be accessing your Gmail account? Scroll to the bottom of the page and you'll see how recently your account was accessed. Click on the details link for more information about recent Gmail access, including the IP addresses that accessed your account. From this activity information screen, you can also click a button that will close out any other open sessions of your Gmail account.

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