Gmail Priority Inbox filters frivolous e-mail

E-mail is a double-edged sword when it comes to productivity. The benefits of e-mail as a communications tool can easily be lost in the sea of nonsense that floods most inboxes, though–and that is after the spam is filtered out. Google is introducing a new experimental feature aimed at helping Gmail users sort it all out: Priority Inbox.

The vast majority of the e-mail ones and zeros zipping around the Internet are actually spam–as much as 92 per cent by some estimates. However, the three per cent that are left still make up a significant number of e-mails, and–even among that small slice of the e-mail pie–most of the messages are frivolous and unimportant.

The tool now being offered by Google for beta testing, promises to help business win the battle against email overload.

Internal tests at Google showed that people who used Priority Inbox spent on average six per cent less time managing e-mail, or an entire workweek per year in the case of an employee who normally spends 13 hours per week on e-mail, according to Wendy Rozeluk, a Google spokesperson, told

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“We believe that users in small and medium size companies will find Priority Inbox very useful,” Rozeluk said.

By default, Priority Inbox organizes your messages into three main sections:

  • Important and unread: messages that Gmail thinks are important that you haven’t read yet
  • Flagged: messages that have been flagged by users with a star to highlight them
  • Everything else: messages that are in your inbox but are not included in the other two sections

Priority Inbox is able to rank e-mails by using algorithmic calculations that prioritizes messages based on parameters that include: frequency of message exchanges between receiver and sender; messages that get read and replied to; or messages that are ignored; and the user’s own manual indication of a message’s ranking.

A post on the Official Google Blog clarifies the purpose of Priority Inbox. “Gmail has always been pretty good at filtering junk mail into the “spam” folder. But today, in addition to spam, people get a lot of mail that isn’t outright junk but isn’t very important–bologna, or “bacn.” So we’ve evolved Gmail’s filter to address this problem and extended it to not only classify outright spam, but also to help users separate this “bologna” from the important stuff. In a way, Priority Inbox is like your personal assistant, helping you focus on the messages that matter without requiring you to set up complex rules.”

Priority Inbox could make a “mistake”, but Rozeluk said “you can train it by using the +/- buttons to correctly mark a conversation as important or not important, and Priority Inbox will learn what you care about most.”

The process of filtering messages into the “Important and Unread” folder is similar to the concept of spam filtering, but in reverse. Google has developed an algorithm for Gmail which predicts whether or not a message is important based on a variety of criteria. Contacts you frequently e-mail, and message threads that you typically open or reply to are assumed to be higher priority. The best part, though, is that messages can be flagged as important or marked as unimportant to help Priority Inbox learn and improve over time.

The tool’s filters can be customized. For example, if you want to make sure all messages from a certain sender are marked important, you can create a filter for messages from that sender, and select “Always mark as important.” (You can also set up a filter to “Never mark as important.”)

A tool like Priority Inbox can intuitively sift through the incoming e-mail so that users can focus on the messages that need their attention the most. This could conceivably cut down on time spent inspectiving the e-mail inbox and boost productivity.

If the six per cent time-saving rate holds true for most users, Priority Inbox will be valuable because e-mail will remain as the primary collaboration platform, despite the emergence of tools like shared documents that can be group-edited, said industry analyst Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research.

He is, however, worried that the tool might incorrectly tag some important messages.

“My only concern would be the algorithms that would identify content as important versus less important. This could lead to false positives in which important content is not identified properly,” Osterman said via e-mail. “This is not a serious issue, since nothing will be deleted, but it could lead to delay in accessing important emails.”

Google said the increasing volume of e-mails that people have to deal with on a daily basis and the time needed to manage them were the inspirations behind creating Priority Inbox.

Consider the following statistics:

  • In 2010, the typical corporate user sends and receives about 110 messages daily, Radicati group, 2010 Email Statistics Report
  • 294 billion emails are sent each day (2010 – Radicati); email users worldwide produce messages greater in size than over 16,000 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare each second
  • $650 billion estimated US economic losses due to “cost of unnecessary interruptions” in terms of lost productivity and innovation (December 2007 New York Times-published survey by Basex)
  • Intel, estimated (Dec. 2007) the impact of information overload on each knowledge worker at up to eight hours a week
  • The average number of corporate e-mails sent and received per person per day are expected to reach over 228 by 2010

“Information overload continues to be a problem and this is a nice step to drive savings,” Rebecca Wettemann, a Nucleus Research analyst. said via e-mail.

“Unfortunately, we’ll all still have to be on the lookout for e-mails that don’t fit the patterns that can be important,” Wettemann added.

Some early users of Priority Inbox were happy with the tool.

“Like many of our users, I get over a hundred messages each day. Priority Inbox saves me time by displaying emails in order of importance, letting me process them more efficiently than before,” said Luke Leonhard, Web services manager for Brady Corp. a marketing firm in Milwaukee.

“The time I save can then be spent on new projects that add value to Brady rather than managing my inbox,” he said.

“We’ve found the Priority Inbox ranking to be fairly accurate right out of the box in what it places above and below the “importance” waterline.” Elliot Tally, Director, IT collaboration and automation, at Sanmina-SCI, in San Jose, Calif.

(With notes from Juan Carlos Perez)

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