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Gmail Makes Labels Act More Like Folders

Before I take leave of this computer for the long weekend, it's time to attend to one of the most contentious issues on the Web: the Gmail folders-versus-labels controversy.

Since Google launched its free Web-mail service on April Fool's day of 2004, it has insisted that Gmail's labeling system--in which you can tag messages with one or more labels like "work," "repeatedly forwarded jokes," "spam," etc.--works better than traditional folders for organizing your messages.

That argument has some logic to it: With labels, you can file a message in more than one place, just as playlists work in a music program. But many Gmail users have spent too much time with folder-centric mail programs to give that up. Many others don't bother with labels at all--at one point, only 29 percent of Gmail users had created even one, the Mountain View, Calif., company revealed in a blog post yesterday.

Back in February, Google relented on its label-centric view, adding a "Move To" command that both applies a label to a message and transfers it from Gmail's seemingly endless inbox to an archive folder, named after that label.

Yesterday, Google conceded a little more. Gmail now displays your labels just below its real folders (Inbox, Sent, Drafts, Spam). You can label a message by dragging a label from that list onto the message. And you can label and move messages in one step by dragging them onto the label listed at the right--the same action you'd use to chuck that e-mail into a folder in a program like Microsoft's Outlook or Apple's Mail.

If you'd place yourself in the folder-traditionalist camp, are these latest Gmail tweaks good enough for you? If you'd rather categorize yourself as a labeler, has Google compromised the concept too much with this step? Sound off in the comments... but, please, not if that would get in the way of watching parades, setting off fireworks, catching a baseball game or other appropriate July 4th weekend activities.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 2, 2009; 5:43 PM ET
Categories:  E-mail  
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About bleepin' time

Posted by: echovector | July 2, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Dragging to a label as to a folder just expands the options. I do use labels, but keep having to remember to add them, whereas dragging an email into a folder just made more sense: like putting it away (and out of that endless Inbox list).

What I really want changed is the "Back to Inbox" buttons at the top and bottom of the page. When you send, they usually move out of reach, and I have to scroll up or down to get back to the Inbox. Terrible!

Posted by: feri | July 2, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

I prefer the labels to folders, and spent some time today rearranging gmail's left column back to the way it was previously. (If anything, I wish the mandatory Outlook at work was more like gmail.)

I mostly use the keyboard shortcuts, anyway, so probably won't use the drag and dropping. feri -- enable them, and just hit "u" for "Up to inbox" when you're done sending. Much faster than hunting for buttons.

Posted by: misere | July 2, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

One change that GMail needs to make is to allow the user to decide if two emails, both with the same subject, are or are not similar enough to form a 'conversation'.

Sometimes the subject matter, thus exact subject line, comes up several times, but in totally unrelated messages and/or circumstances, that the user is forced to keep messages that should be trashed, or trash messages that should be kept just because GMail 'decided' that they formed a conversation - not an efficient use of the mail service, indexing, labeling and folders.

Posted by: critter69 | July 2, 2009 10:35 PM | Report abuse

So this is why my labels moved the the left side? AARG! So annoying!!! I use 20+ labels the left side of my window is packed with stuff and the right side has virtually nothing. Not a good use of real estate!


Posted by: andresist | July 2, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse

Guess I value my time too much to use labels or folders. Everything gets archived as soon as read and if I need to find something later I use search. When I used Outlook, I did use folders because search took too long. I'm always amazed at how much people can complain and debate something they are getting for free.

Posted by: Dawny_Chambers | July 3, 2009 5:03 AM | Report abuse

What about Gmail's built-in folders? You know:

Readable by Google staff

NSA reviewable

Unavailable in China

Not private


Part of Google books



I'll never understand why people trust a centralized, cloud-based, government cooperating, hacker target for their private correspondence!! Oh, well. I suppose we all use ISP e- mail systems, so why not just put it out there with and for Google eyes?!

I'm a folder person myself, so this change sounds good.

Posted by: Astrogal | July 3, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse

Was a folder guy for years with a number of email clients. Instantly converted to labels when I adopted Gmail, but gave it up after about a year, when I realized that the Gmail search function made it entirely unnecessary. Now I archive (sans label) anything that is interesting and search the archive if I need to retrieve it.

Posted by: bobpowell1 | July 3, 2009 6:48 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday I noticed six little dots to the far left of each msg. When I hover over this area I see a hand. Is this what you are referring to? How do I learn about this?

Posted by: Bartolo1 | July 3, 2009 7:12 AM | Report abuse

I set up all kind's of labels when I first started using gmail. I have the filters set to automatically place them in the labels. Do I use them now... lol, no. But I use gmail for my personal email, and not work.

If, this was my work account. I would be using labels etensivly. I now have personal folders set up, but it would be nice to use labels instead. Especially when a specific email may cross catagorizing topics... Ie: Modification to an application that I use every day. Could be put in folder from control assurance, could be put in folder for that specific application. Better yet, label it with both catagories... That way, latter when my febel mind can't remember where I put that email... I would find it in one of the two places that come to mind.

So, labels for personal use. Eh, found I over worked the situation. But for buisness use, especially for much latter retrieval when you don't remember where you filed something. Yes, it can be a god send.

Posted by: LiberalBasher | July 3, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

When is Gmail going to come up with a way to organize e-mails (quickly) by sender, date, time, etc. just like Outlook does? It's so cumbersome in Gmail to sort through emails (although you can create rules, why not just have functional tab bars like Outlook).

Posted by: uvarichmond | July 3, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

The drag and drop is fine, but I would like a control/command-drag-and-drop or right-click-drag-and-drop alternative that would ONLY apply the label to my dragged message rather than both apply the label AND move my message. I want both options, just like you get when dragging-and-dropping icons in most desktop operating system environments.

Posted by: HaigEK | July 3, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

About time, Gmail! I use one of my accounts almost purely for storage/retrieval and have 90 labels to cover the many subjects I'm interested in. Several have subsets, for example: Travel US, Travel Europe, Travel Canada, Travel Tips, Travel Dining, etc. So
if I want to see everything I've saved to plan a trip to Canada, going to the labels is much better than doing a search on 'Canada'.

Yesterday, I first went to Settings and clicked 'show' on the Labels I use most to ensure they'd appear in the left sidebar. Then I went through my first Inbox page, clicking on emails that went into one label. Then I did drop and drag on one and all of them went. Afterwards, I looked them over, and if any merited another label or two, I added it. I repeated this for other labels.

Net result: with a little upfront work, this is going to make organizing and finding things a lot easier.

Posted by: thalia1 | July 3, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I find the folders a quick convenient way to keep track of my areas of interest. I object very much to arbitrarily selecting some of them for display according to use. I know my favorites and I can judge which I want to scan and when. The worst idea though was putting the list on the left side thus competing with everything else there. Make these changes selectable and allow us to move them where we want them.

Posted by: herbnbarb | July 3, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I've probably been using Gmail since it first came out, and it took me only until recently to realize how labels worked. I admit it.
For the past several years, I've wondered to myself--"How can I create a folder to put my emails into?" I went through all the menus, etc....Eventually I just thought that I couldn't keep the emails that are really old and so I deleted them.

Everyone around me seemed to be able to keep track of old emails just fine and so I never asked about it, for fear of being called a total idiot.

The thing of it is: the system is NOT intuitive in my opinion. Although the new drag feature may solve some of my problems. I thought it really tedious to click on an email, read, go to the menu to find the right label, label it, and then check it, and then click archive to put it into the label section.

It doesn't sound like I'm the only one that didn't know about the labels.....

Posted by: BoScot | July 3, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I pop my Gmail accounts down into Outlook, so I'm really getting a kick out of these replies...

Posted by: williehorton | July 3, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

The 1950s are over. Not every "letter" must be filed in a "folder". It's a shame Google caved to the pressure of legacy software users.

Here's the dirty little secret for all you compulsive e-mail folder-filers: you're wasting your time. 99% of those e-mails you're filing, you'll never look at again. And the remaining 1%, you can find by text-search just as easily as by folder.

And folders don't handle overlap well (e.g. where do you file an e-mail that could equally well go into two or more folders?).

For those e-mails you KNOW you'll want to find later on, labels are a superior solution. And they only need to be used by exception. For everything else, simply archiving and using full-text search is plenty good enough. And so much faster.

So stop filing, already.

Posted by: DupontJay | July 3, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I just made an experiment. You can also drag "labels"/"folders"from their place on the left onto messages to add labels. That's cool. Maybe it's always been possible to do that but I never tried it.

I don't particularly use GMail labels (nor will I likely increase my use of them now that I can make believe that they're folders)--I have three labels of which I use only one with any frequency--because Google's search is so fast, but I prefer labels over folders. You can always turn labels into virtual folders by restricting items to having only a single label. Going the other way is a lot more trouble.

Posted by: -bwg | July 3, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Use an IMAP client with gmail account .. voila!

Posted by: George20 | July 3, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

I use labels as a visual tool to help get through my Inbox. I have set up filters to apply labels to most incoming mail -- Work mail, Freelance mail, Personal mail, etc. -- and the labels let me quickly choose important emails and respond.

Labels aren't as useful for me for searching -- text search is very fast and easy -- though I appreciate the comment above about tagging emails with subject areas ("Canada") making it easier to find groups of items.

All my emails are archived once I have responded or otherwise dealt with them. The key to a happy Gmail experience is to end each session with an empty inbox, or close to it.

Posted by: bennettks | July 5, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Remember the toothpaste ad "you'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent?" [Spell check wants to make that last word President. -- LOL]

I just noticed that Firefox 3.5 caused my 'labels' to vanish, but I see they are still there, perhaps all 30 of them. You could always use multiple 'pull down' labels on a single message, so it would get filed in both or all relevant 'folders.'



Guess I'll have to play around on the left side.

I haven't tried going in drag lately LOL.

Posted by: | July 5, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

The lack of labels/folders was just the part of the Gmail algorithm which sold me on it from the beginning. I wish the rest of my office could work the same way: rather than wasting my time filing things, just throw it all on a pile, and let my search machine find it for me, if and when I need it. How I dream of the paperless office sans filing cabinets!

Posted by: jim24 | July 6, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I fear that like many Gmail users, you've misunderstood how Gmail labels work. Non-deleted mail is kept in only one «folder» - if one wants to call it that - namely «All Mail» ; «Inbox» for example, is not a folder but a label, which is removed from a message by clicking «Archive» - or the little «x» to the right of the «Inbox» button at the right of the subject line of a newly opened message. Thus there's no reason for anyone's Gmail inbox to be «endless» or even «seemingly endless» ; if one wishes to remove the label «Inbox» from a message without assigning it another, custom label, e g, «Aunt Mary», all one has to do, as noted above, is click «Archive». The real problem with labels in Gmail is that a heirarchy cannot be assigned - thus I cannot give messages relating to Aunt Mary a structure of type «Relatives» → «Maternal Relatives» → «Aunt Mary». Or rather, Gmail itself does not (yet ?) provide the tools to do so, but a friendly chap named Arend von Reinersdorff does, as those who have used his «Folders4Gmail», available via this link :, have learned to their profit. I'd prefer to see a native Gmail hierarchy tool, but until that time, Herr von Reinersdorffs little add-on is an excellent work-around....


Posted by: mhenriday | July 6, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Rob, a very clear and thorough analysis of the issues of folders vs. labels, and of the motivations for making labels in Gmail more foldery. Another perspective with a slightly different explanation and focus can be found here:

The bottom line is that labels eschew the whole hierarchy motif, which any database person will tell you yields more flexibility, but then people long for the comfort of fixed organized folders.

But an important point made in the referenced post: you note that "only 29 percent of Gmail users had created even one [label]." Think about how many features Gmail has. How many of them have you used? 29% sounds like deep penetration for a Gmail feature. Perhaps, as the author says, they need to promote it right and educate users about how it works more clearly.

Posted by: sviergn | July 9, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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