Google's Gmail Gets a Priority Inbox

Tuesday Aug 31st 2010 by David Needle
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The new Priority Inbox feature for Gmail is designed to let you always see your most important messages at the top of the page. How smart is it?

The battle against information overload may never be completely won, but Google said its latest innovation is an effective weapon.

On Tuesday the search giant launched Priority Inbox, a new way for people who use Gmail to manage their email messages. Unlike filtering options that organize incoming emails into different folders, Priority Inbox doesn't require any special set up, though there are a number of customization options.

Also, you can continue to use the traditional Gmail inbox view or switch to the new Priority Inbox view at any time -- both are accessible from the left-hand column of folder options in Gmail above the starred items, sent mail, drafts and spam folders.

Priority Inbox provides a three-pane, vertical view of email messages, organizing them into the categories of important and unread, starred and "everything else."

Gmail already gives you the option of clicking a star button next to messages they consider important or that require follow up. Clicking on the starred view shows only those messages. But much like clicking on a folder in Microsoft Outlook, the starred view requires action on your part. With Priority Inbox, Google said it is using technology to predict what messages are most important to an individual.

For example, unlike most email systems that put the most recent messages at the top, Priority Inbox also considers a number of other factors, such as how quickly you responded to an earlier email from the same sender in the thread and how frequently you correspond with the sender.

"Right out of the box you get a pretty reasonable view of things that are important to you, and it learns over time like a spam filter in reverse," Rajen Sheth, group product manager for enterprise apps at Google, told InternetNews.com.

You can customize each of the three panes with a simple drop-down menu at the header. For example, you can change the important and unread pane of messages to only show either the top messages in those categories. The starred list shows the top 10 starred items by default, but you can expand that to show either the top 25 or top 50 starred items.

Google said it will be rolling out the Priority Inbox as an optional beta feature to all Gmail and Google Apps customers starting Tuesday. Priority Inbox will be automatically available to Google Apps users if the administrator has activated the "enable pre-release features" option.

The news comes as both Google and arch rival Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) are touting their own cloud-computing solutions as more flexible and cost-effective than traditional software. Google has already released several Gmail features designed to win over Microsoft Outlook customers.

Luke Leonhard, Web services manager at Brady Corporation, an early tester of Priority Inbox, said it has several advantages over traditional email.

"For one thing it's the way Google rolls out new features, which is so much nicer than traditional systems, like going from Outlook 2003 to Outlook 2007 where you have to wait for the whole bundle of features in a new version and a training manual. Google doesn't change everything at once," Leonhard told InternetNews.com.

"You can set up email filters, but it adds more work for users," Leonhard continued. "My job is to manage Brady's email, and I can tell you most users won't bother spending time trying to maximize their filters. Priority Inbox goes to work automatically, and it does a lot even if you never customize it. As my SEO manager said when she saw this, 'Where have you been all my life?' Priority Inbox is the next step in email."

Leonhard said the Priority Inbox feature will be available to all 7,000 of the company's Google Apps customers this week.

Saving a Week a Year?

Google's Sheth said early testers of Priority Inbox spent 6 percent less time managing their email, which translates to a savings of about a week's time for a typical information worker over the course of a year. "That's a very tangible benefit," he said. "And over time the system is likely to get better as it learns more about you." You can help that process along with a few mouse clicks by reclassifying any messages that Priority Inbox has marked as important but aren't.

While Google often tests new services internally with a select group of employees, Sheth said Priority Inbox has already been used by a majority of Google staffers.

"That was an important thing for us to do because we got feedback from thousands of employees," he said. "We wanted to make sure it worked well for people that have lots of email."

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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