Gmail has come a long way. It's not perfect and occasionally prompts ripples of outrage across its user base. But let's be honest: with Gmail you get plenty for nothing.
As a web app, Gmail is a constant work in progress, but the amount of under-the-hood power is pretty staggering. That's what we're here to delve into: all the tools below the surface of the Gmail inbox.
Let's start with one thing right up front: Labs. Not the adorable fluffy dogs, but the "laboratory" of features that are always in testing by Google. You can access Labs by going to the Gear icon () button in Gmail > Settings > Labs. I'm tempted to suggest that you turn them all on since they're almost all useful, but we'll get into the best. (Also, be warned, sometimes the best of them get killed without warning). In addition to Labs, there are plenty of browser add-ons and extensions that can enhance Gmail specifically, far beyond its original parameters.
Not every bit of power-user tech in Gmail requires special accessories. Plenty is possible via the main interface—or at your fingertips on the keyboard—without ever making a change to settings or installing something extra. Mastering even a few of them will help you take full advantage of what Gmail has to offer beyond the basics of sending and receiving messages. Let's get started.
Get Paid (or Send Money)
It took a while, but Google Wallet finally made it to Gmail. Click the dollar sign icon at the bottom of a message and you have the option to send money. Or select Request Money to tell someone to pay up.
You and the recipient will need a Google Wallet account with banking info attached; the Google Wallet setting for "Send money using Gmail" must also be enabled. The max is $9,999 going either way.
Don't Worry (Too Much) About Encryption
If you're worried about snoops looking at your messages, Google has been encrypting all Gmail messages since 2013. Any Gmail-to-Gmail sending is relatively safe, and Gmail defaults to using HTTPS when you access it online. Every little bit helps.
According to Google's Transparency Report, 88 percent of messages sent to Gmail between May 12 and Aug. 10 were encrypted; it's slightly higher at 89 percent for outbound messages. Gmail warns when you receive a non-encrypted message from outside the Google ecosystem. Pay attention to those messages—they appear below the subject line— if you're at all nervous about security and privacy.
Gmail for Android Prevents Phishing
Gmail has been successfully used in major phishing attacks in the past, targeting users with links to malicious content. Google noticed and has, for Android at least, rolled out some protection. If there is a suspicious link in a message that you click on your Android smartphone's Gmail app, Google will pop-up a "Warning – phishing (web forgery) suspected" warning like the one above. It might come up even for links you know are okay, but better safe than sorry.
Shortcut Cheat Sheet
Gmail is chock full of keyboard shortcuts for just about everything you can do. Check out the Minimalistic Gmail Cheat Sheet from Visual.ly for an info-graphically perfect representation. Or just hit Shift+? while in Gmail to get a pop-up list. To switch things up, go to Settings > Keyboard Shortcuts tab to personalize the keys used (you can't customize if you're using Gmail in Google Apps for business).
Gmail for Mobility
There's a Google-built Gmail app for iOS—we gave it 5 stars at its debut—and of course Gmail is the default email on Android systems. But they're not the only way to get Gmail while mobile. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the current best iOS email program is Microsoft Outlook for iPhone, which does a great job working with Gmail accounts.
But that's not all: Google has another app for gmail, called, unimaginatively, Inbox, which tries to make email smarter by bundling messages that go together, making it easier to add to-dos to the inbox, snoozing messages, and more. It's available on iOS and Android and on the web; watch the video for deets.
Gmailify Your Yahoo or Outlook
You can access Gmail accounts and other accounts, like Yahoo and Hotmail/Outlook.com addresses, Exchange/Office 365 accounts, and of course POP3 and IMAP accounts, in the Gmail app for Android. The separate accounts all get the same features as a Gmail account, like the spam filtering and tabbed inbox. The Gmail Android app is the only way to do it—it's not something you can do in the Web interface for Gmail—and you need to have at least one Gmail account first for it to work. Click the menu, click the down arrow next to your account name, click + Add Account, pick the type of account to add, and enter all the credentials. Then you'll see all your email in one unified inbox on your phone or tablet.
Access Gmail Via Yahoo or Outlook.com
If you prefer Yahoo Mail, as some do, you have the option to get your Gmail there (as well as your AOL and Outlook.com messages). In the newest version of Yahoo Mail, click the gear icon () > More Settings > Mailboxes > Add Mailbox > Google.
Likewise, if you're an Outlook.com user, go to the gear () > Connected Accounts and click Gmail. You can set it to be a send-only account, or import all your Gmail messages.
Import Other Mail
You can't beat Gmail for searching and sorting messages. So if you've got some legacy email account using only POP3 that you've been checking on a client like Thunderbird, ditch that software and get the messages into your Gmail account. Go into > Settings > Accounts and Import > Check mail from other accounts (it's right in the middle). Add it and those messages filter right in same as all the others. You can add up to five.
Sign Up for Google Sans Gmail
Similarly, if you want access to all sorts of Google services, from Analytics to Drive to YouTube, but don't actually want a Gmail account, there is a special Google account signup page where you can put in your existing email address instead of creating a new account name to be used with Google. If you change your mind during sign-up and want a Gmail address, there is a link on the page to go to the regular account signup page.
Use Multiple Gmail Accounts
If you're a Gmail super fan and have multiple accounts, meanwhile, there's no need to sign in and out constantly. On the desktop (Chrome, Firefox, Edge), you can sign into multiple accounts at once; they'll each occupy a tab and stay signed in. Click on your account on the top-right > Add Account.
Send From a Different Address
You may have many Gmail-based accounts, or multiple addresses on the same account. You can set all the addresses up in your primary Gmail, and make it look like you're sending from a completely different account, either all the time or on a per-message basis. Go into Settings, find the Accounts and Import tab, and the section for "Send Mail As." That will allow you to add multiple email addresses. This is great if you send a lot of messages on one account, but want replies to go into another.
Move Messages to Different Accounts
While you can sign into multiple Gmail accounts at once on the desktop and mobile, only the built-in iOS Mail app lets you move a message received on one Gmail account to another Gmail account—or any email that uses iMAP. This is very handy when you get business emails sent to your personal address, or vice versa. To make the move, open your inbox, tap Edit, check the box next to the message(s) you want moved, and tap Move. Select the account and folder within that account to move to. It's instantaneous.
Don't Just Label Spam, Block Users
If you got a lot of crap messages back in the day, you had to label them as spam. But now Gmail lets you fully block a user who's bugging you. Click the More drop-down menu—that's the down arrow next to the Reply button on a message on the desktop—and select Block [Username].
Undo the Send
This is the most important Gmail setting ever. It came from Google Labs, and has since graduated to a regular feature. Go to > Settings > General tab and check off "Enable Undo Send," and select how long the cancellation period is (5, 10, 20, or 30 seconds). Then, whenever you send a message, you'll see an Undo link in a yellow box floating at the top. If you click it in time, your message will not go out, and you'll get a chance to re-edit it before you try again, or delete it entirely. You can even undo discards, so when you delete a message in progress, you can bring it back and start again.
Drag Messages or Labels
Gmail doesn't do "folders." Instead, it has "labels." They're functionally the same, albeit discomforting to those used to the whole folder paradigm. It's easy to drag a message from the inbox to a label and thus file it away, archived for future searches. But if that message in the inbox requires further attention, you can drag the label from the left sidebar to the message, as well! It stays in the inbox, but is ready for future archiving.
Preview in a Pane
Most desktop email programs like Outlook offer a preview—you click the message in a list and see it in another pane of the window. In Gmail, turn on Preview Pane in Gmail Labs, and you'll see the drop-down menu for it next to the Settings button. Your choice: have the preview below the message list (horizontal) or to the right (vertical). When there's no message selected, you get a preview of how much space your messages are using out of the 15GB allowed by Google. (You may see more depending on what you've done to expand the storage.)
Dots Are an Illusion
The best known secret of all time about Gmail is that it ignores periods in your email address. So firstname.lastname@example.org is the same as email@example.com or even y.o.u.r.n.a.m.e.@gmail.com. They all go to the same person. This feature might seem useless, but you can still see the pattern, so it's a great trick for signing up for newsletters or sharing your email address—you can tell who's sold your name to spammers, for instance.
Add a Plus to Your Address
Another time-honored Gmail address trick: Gmail ignores anything after a plus sign (). So firstname.lastname@example.org goes to the same place as email@example.com. The difference is, this alias is incredibly handy for filtering messages, as Gmail filters do see what's after the plus. Thus, if you sign up for every newsletter with firstname.lastname@example.org, you only need to filter on messages sent to that address, rather than on every individual newsletter sender. (This doesn't always work however, as many services don't allow sign-ups with emails that have optional characters, of which the plus sign is one.)
Power Your Search
The quick way to do a power search in Gmail is to click the gray arrow in the search box, which produces the search dialog box seen above. But there are many Gmail search operators you can type in.
For example, type "in:trash" and "in:spam" to include those folders in a search (they're usually skipped). Or restrict it to just "in:inbox." Use "label:" followed by the label/folder name to only search that folder. The "filename:" followed by an actual file's name finds specific attachments. You can even search in your Google+ Circles of friends by searching "circle:" with the name of the group.
Use a minus sign (hyphen) to search one thing and not another: "dinner -movie" would only find messages that say "dinner," but skip any mentioning "movie." The other Boolean operator supported is "OR" (type it in all caps), but the full list has many more options.
Untab the Inbox
This tip is more about turning off a feature than activating it. The tabbed interface was introduced by Google in 2013 as a way to file items in your Gmail inbox auto-magically. The tabs each have a category: Primary (which is your typical inbox), Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums. Yes, that's a "category," not a "label"—they're not the same thing.
If you feel like you're missing some messages, it might be because Gmail is sticking them in the latter categories and you haven't clicked the tabs. You can kill the tabs by clicking the gear icon () > Configure Inbox. Pass the cursor over each option to see examples of messages that might end up in these tabs. Note, the categories only affect messages in the inbox—not what's already archived. (And you don't want to turn on tabs if you're also running the SmartLabels experiment from Gmail Labs, or you may lose your mind.)
Just like Tabs automatically separate messages into different inboxes, Smart Labels, another Gmail Labs project, organize messages with different labels in the left-hand menu. But even if you don't have it enabled, it runs in the background and is searchable. For example, do a search on label:^smartlabel_receipt and you'll see recent purchases. Smart Labels mainly categorizes messages as Bulk (newsletters, mass mailings), Forums (from groups), and Notifications (things you want but aren't personally sent by someone…like bills). Work with them while creating your own filters, and you may never have to manually label a message again.
Response in a Can
Stop typing so much, especially the same message over and over. The Canned Responses experiment in Gmail Labs is a must for those repeated, redundant, repetitive responses. Activate it and type up a response mail. Click the arrow in the lower right corner of the message composition pane and select "Canned responses." You'll get the option here to save the message, or apply an already saved message to the current window. If you re-write the canned reply, you can resave it with the same name for future use.
Smart Reply in Mobile Apps
Google's Inbox app has long offered Smart Reply—a machine learning tech that prepares three, short appropriate replies to messages you receive. A single tap on the offered reply adds it to the response window, where you can send it off or write more.
Smart Reply now extends to the Gmail apps for iOS and Android, so now whenever you're in mobile, you can dash off replies that takes into account the original message, but also how you talk (expect exclamation points if you're that kind of excited typist).
Google Stores ALL The Images
When you get an email with an embedded image, it's typically like a web page—the image loads from the source. Not on Gmail. In 2013, it started caching all the images that go through its system. So when you load an image in a Gmail message, it's coming from Google's servers. This is nice because it makes it harder for you to be tracked by web bugs/beacons. It's bad because it also means that if you personally send an image that's proprietary, confidential, or risqué, your recipient may not be the only viewer. (NSA, anyone?)
To be safe, go into General Settings and under Images, check "Ask before displaying external images." It'll also help messages load faster. But it won't stop Google from caching images you send as attachments, so only send it if it's not going to be trouble later.
Sign Out Remotely
You can access Gmail from multiple computers, smartphones, and tablets at the same time. Sometimes, you might stay signed in when you don't mean to (on, say, a public computer), or worse, suspect someone of using your account behind your back. On a desktop, go to the inbox, scroll down. In the fine print at the bottom of the page it shows "Last account activity" and a time. Click the Details link to see all the activity for the account; click the button to sign out of all the other sessions in use. You should also turn on the option to show any unusual activity at the bottom.
Hangout on the Phone
Instant messages are still part of Gmail, but instead of Gtalk or Gchat, they're now called Hangouts, which you can also use to make audio or video calls. Just sign into Hangouts, find the contact, and click the phone or video camera icon. You can also call any phone number by clicking the phone icon and typing it in.
Nothing is more annoying that realizing you must label a Gmail message that's already sent. It requires opening up the Sent Mail folder and finding it to assign the label. However, you can label a message before it's sent by clicking the More Options arrow () in the lower right of the compose window.
Now, go into Settings and click the button next to "Show 'Send & Archive' button in reply." Now if a reply already has a label—like one you applied while composing—you get a new button called Send+Archive (though it doesn't actually say "archive," it shows Gmail's archive icon, like a file box with a down arrow on it.) Click that button and the entire thread gets archived to the pre-assigned label/folder when sent.
Back Up Every Message
Should you trust Google to always save all your important messages, not to mention contacts and attachments? Of course not. Thankfully, Google Takeout lets users download their entire Gmail data set—and a lot more, pretty much everything you've ever said or done with your Google account, from video uploads to location history on Google Maps. You don't have to get all of your mail, only grab certain labels or categories, if you prefer.
Hit the Mute Button
For email threads you just can't handle right now, hit the mute button. You'll find it in the More menu in the top toolbar, or hit the M key as a shortcut. The thread will remain in the archive even as new messages come in; you won't see them again unless you're the direct recipient or you search for it.
My God It's Full of Stars
Stars are how you give a message importance, signifying that it needs to be read later, requires follow-up, asks a question you can't answer at the moment, or maybe all of the above. Clicking the star on a message will highlight it and make it easy to find (under the Starred label/folder or search for is:starred).
However, you're not limited to just a yellow star. Go to Settings > Stars and activate the option to use one star, four stars, or all the stars—you just click the icon over and over on the message to cycle through to the one you want.
Need to search on a special star icon? Search "has:blue-star" for example, to find those with blue stars, or "has:green-check" or "has:purple-question" or " has:orange-guillemet" (that's the double carets: ), etc.
How to Really Select Everything
To select every message on a page in Gmail, you click the checkbox in the upper-left corner, right? Almost. Checking that box selects every conversation on that first page of results—and that's typically limited to 100 items (depending on your choices in the General Settings; you may have picked even fewer). If you want everything under that label, visible on the page or not, check the box and look for the link at the top of the results that says "Select all X conversations in 'Label.'"
Add to Tasks or Create Event
If you have Gmail, you have a Google Calendar and Google Tasks account. Turning an email into a calendar event or to-do list task is a breeze: While reading the message, highlight some text, go to the More menu at top, and select either "Add to Tasks" or "Create Event."
The first trick for attachments: don't forget them. Thankfully, Gmail will pop up a reminder if your message includes phrases like "I have attached" or "I have included," yet you hit send without attaching anything.
You can drag and drop files from Windows or Mac to a Gmail message. Images will be imbedded in the message unless you drag to the tool bar below the composition window. Don't add too many. There's a 25MB limit per message. If you try to send more, the files go to Google Drive and the recipient gets a link.
If you are a big Google Drive user, attaching items already in Drive is not only a breeze, but doesn't count toward the 25MB limit. Click the Insert Files Using Drive icon in the composition window's toolbar to pick a file to attach. This also gets you around the kind of files Gmail has blocked, such as EXE files.
Want the same thing for your Dropbox account? Chrome users can get it with the Dropbox for Gmail extension.
Establish a Delegate
You can delegate someone else to share control over your Gmail account, be they a company admin or your significant other. Set up the account under Settings > Accounts and Import > Grant Access to your Account. The person also has to have a Google/Gmail account of some sort—meaning it ends in the domain name that matches yours, be it gmail.com or a domain used as part of Google Apps.
The Gift of IFTTT
The service IFTTT (If This, Then That) automates tasks between web-based apps, and it has a Gmail channel. The possibilities are almost endless, but here are a few stellar examples: Save starred emails to Evernote; Add incoming receipts to a Google Drive spreadsheet; Email yourself phone messages; Get emailed weather reports; and Save all email attachments to Dropbox (or Google Drive or OneDrive or Box). The list goes on and on.
Delete Big Messages
If you come close to using up the 15GB of space Google provides for storage, you may need to delete some messages. Search for "size:xm" where you replace the x with a number. The "m" stands for megabytes. Any message with over 10MB of size probably has some hefty attachments—save them over to your hard drive (not to Google Drive—that's space you share with Gmail, so it won't save you anything.)
Another option: run Find Big Mail, a service that automatically creates labels for all your plus-sized messages so they're easy to find. It's free for a single Gmail account; only Google Apps users get charged.
Speed Up the Slow Gmail
Serve Some Emoji
Wish you could send little pictures in place of text in your Gmail? You can. Just click the menu at the bottom of the compose window on a desktop browser or hit Ctrl+Shift+2. They don't always translate well—I sent a bunch to Yahoo Mail and it didn't understand the cat images at all—but between Gmail users, it may spice up some messages.
Make Gmail Handle Links
Usually when you click a mailto: link on the Web—the kind that should auto-populate an out-going email message with an address and maybe even a subject line—the browser will try to default to your email client software. But it can go straight to Gmail instead.
In the Chrome menu () go to Settings > Advanced > Privacy and Security > Content Settings > Handlers (or type chrome://settings/handlers into the address bar). If mailto isn't listed, look for the Protocol Handler icon that should now appear in the address bar at top—it looks like overlapping diamonds. Click it, and you can set up mailto to point at "mail.google.com." If there is another program listed for mailto, remove it and replace it.
Unsubscribe to Everything
Are you getting a lot of newsletters and other junk you don't want? Most have an Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the message, and you can and should use those. But Gmail on the desktop also sticks an "Unsubscribe" link at the TOP of the message, right next to the sender's name, if it can detect the link in the message.
For easy clean-up, type "unsubscribe" into search, and you'll get a list of every message that has the word listed. Go through them, and it's as close as you can get to bulk unsubscribing without a third-party service like Unroll.me, if you even can trust them.
Archive to Inbox Zero
"Inbox Zero" is that marvelous zen state one achieves by having absolutely zero unread messages in an inbox. It's not easy, because email messages can be reminders of tasks or events. Worse, inboxes can be just like the inbox on a desk—piled high with stuff you have to get to, or may never get to.
If you can't bear to mark a message as read in case you have to go back to it, or worse, would never, ever delete a message you might have to refer to later, you can still get to Inbox Zero. Just archive the messages.
That's what labels do—you are archiving messages under a label to find later. But you don't need a label to archive messages. While reading a message or selecting from the inbox, click the Archive button at the top (the file box with the down arrow), and the messages are stored by Gmail.
You can find them later with a search. There is no "archive" label, but you can look in the "All Mail" link toward the bottom of the left-hand navigation. Remember, archived messages still count against your Gmail storage—because you're storing them. If you want to actually be rid of them and their attachments, drag the message to the Trash label, where they will remain for 30 days before being permanently deleted.
Better yet, get rid of frequently received and ignored messages that you can't delete—like receipts, by archiving them automatically using filters. Click a message, then go to the More menu > Filter Messages like this. A form pops up that will auto-populate info about the message (like who it's from); click Create filter with this search, and check the options for where you want that message to archive. Best of all, click "Mark as read" so you never get bothered by it in the future.
Sign Up for the Suite
If you've truly embraced Gmail, consider making it part of your business—even if you're a sole proprietor. G Suite (previously called Google Apps) maps a domain name of your choice to your email and other apps (Drive, Sites, Calendar, and more) and costs as little as $60 a year per inbox with 30GB of storage each. Pay more to get more.