Gmail’s Priority Inbox strikes a blow against email overload

gmail priority inboxEmail overload has become a constant presence in my life, and I’m not the only one. Overload seems to be the big focus of many new email products, including the latest version of Microsoft Outlook. Now Google is launching an ambitious new attack on the problem called Gmail Priority Inbox.

Most of the solutions I’ve seen so far focus on organizing your inbox (for example the conversation grouping in Gmail, which Outlook has copied) and on helping you find useful information that’s buried in a pile of emails (for example a startup called Postbox, which helps you find content like links and attachments). Google’s new Priority Inbox goes a step further, by actually identifying the emails that are important, and that you need to read right away.

The feature divides your inbox into three areas, all viewable in one screen — at the top, there’s the “priority” emails, the ones you should read first; below that are the emails you have starred (an existing Gmail feature to mark emails as important); and the inbox with everything else. Google Enterprise Senior Product Manager Rajen Sheth said that it has been challenging to develop the algorithm to find the best emails, which is based on “signals” like who sent the email, the words used, and how you’ve treated past emails.

“A message that might be important to you might not be important to me, and might be even more important to someone else,” he said.

Sheth told me that he has been testing Priority Inbox for a few months, and now he finds it hard to go back to regular inboxes. He compared the initial usage period to the early days of spam folder, when users till need to check the spam section to make sure nothing important slipped in — with Priority Inbox, he kept checking the undifferentiated inbox at first, but eventually focused more and more on important emails.

That might sound like the obvious spin of a product manager promoting his product, but I’ve played with Priority Inbox for a couple of days and had a similar response. If anything, I’ve found that the priority section errs on the side of inclusiveness. You can personalize the settings, marking emails as important or unimportant, and I’m frequently marking emails as “unimportant.” My workflow has already changed. I deal with most “priority” emails right away, then do a quick browse of the rest of the emails a couple of times a day. (So if you’re waiting on an email from me, uh, sorry.)

Priority Inbox is going live for both users of the Gmail consumer product and business users through the Google Apps bundle. I asked Sheth if he thought the service would catch on with everyday users the way it probably will with business emailers, and he acknowledged that he’s not totally sure. But he noted that in your everyday life, you still receive emails that are “not quite spam,” so the need to prioritize messages still exists.

Front page photo: Jorge Franganillo