Google Contacts needs to get better. Google and Gmail devotees regularly deal with duplicate contacts, sync abnormalities, over-stuffed contact groups and other problems. Here are our best methods for fixing those annoyances yourself until Google does for real.
Photo by sidewalk flying.
Let’s be clear: We love how Google Contacts functions as a centralised database of email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, mailing addresses, IM handles and much more for our various Google services. Our readers generally dig it too, though not without complaints about its sometimes unpredictable nature. What I’m aiming to do in this post is detail how Google Contacts works (it’s probably not how you’d expect), explain some fixes for common Contacts annoyances, help you clean up and organise your Contacts, and point out the proper way to sync Google Contacts to your various devices.
How Google Contacts Works
You don’t actually need a Gmail account to use Google Contacts, but Gmail is normally where most users start using Contacts. If you use nearly any kind of Google service, Google has probably set up a Contacts section for you, which you can visit at google.com/contacts and start tinkering with.
If you’re using Google Apps with a particular domain, your Contacts page can usually be found at google.com/contacts/a/sitename.com/, replacing sitename.com with your own organisation’s URL. Google Contacts acts a bit differently inside an Apps account and can cause some stress when used alongside a “personal” Gmail account — but we’ll get to that in a bit. Take some time to get familiar with the web interface, and learn what you can and can’t do in it. It is always, always the primary place to fix problems and negotiate sync issues with your various apps and devices — make a change here, and it’s the only way to ensure it will (probably) stick.
Google’s Help section for Contacts doesn’t get nearly nitty-gritty enough, but a read-through does provide a few pointers. The most helpful explainer is about Default contact groups, which really explains the five contact groups that you can’t delete, rename or change, and the one contact group that drives a lot of office app veterans nuts:
- All Contacts: Just what it sounds like — this is a list of everyone you’ve composed an email to, or replied to, from this Google/Gmail account. If you’re using an Android phone or the Google Voice service, you’ll also see people you’ve called (more than once?) show up here. You don’t have a lot of say in the matter as to who goes into All Contacts, but if it ever feels like just too much information stashed away about your email, there are nuclear options, detailed below in “Fixes”.
- My Contacts: Google automatically populates this group, and you can’t delete it or manage who automatically goes into it, though you can manually add or remove individuals from it, as noted below. Contacts in this group tend to rank higher in Gmail’s auto-completing address function, and in other Google apps, whenever you start typing.
- Your Friends, Family and Coworkers: Default groups, created by Google, and you can’t delete them. If Google Contacts was very, very smart about which contacts it created, which contacts it let into My Contacts, and how it syncs up and eliminates duplications between all your accounts, desktop apps and devices that can access it, this would be the end of this post. We soldier on, though, because there are many other points to discuss.
- Any group you create on your own: Create your own group, and Google won’t automatically shove people or fake names/numbers into it, and if you’ve got the right kind of phone or syncing app, you can make that your primary “People I Actually Correspond With” list. Highly recommended.
We’ll get to the fixes and tweaks first, and then list some syncing tools that might help you connect Google Contacts in a better way to all your communication outlets.
To remove one or more people from My Contacts, scroll or search to find them, select them from the My Contacts list, then hit the Groups button and select the “Remove from: My Contacts” option. No guarantees they won’t go back there if you get into a real discussion by email or phone, but for most users, it’s not all that painful to do an occasional My Contacts purge.
If a contact isn’t in your chat list and you want them there, search out their contact name from the search box at the top of the chat list, mouse over the name result, and do the same kind of chat selection from the “Video & More” menu.
Import Facebook and LinkedIn contacts into Google: It’s sometimes a smart move, since you’ve already invested all that time into building your social networks. The most reliable way we’ve seen Facebook importation happen requires Firefox with Greasemonkey installed, a handy Greasemonkey script to go with it, and Nic Pfost’s helpful instructions. (Original post)
BlackBerry duplicate fix: If you’re using the Google Sync app to keep BlackBerry and Gmail account in sync, here’s SudiptiNycteus’s instructions on forcing your phone to stop creating dupes:
- Click and open contact folder
- click the berry button and look for Options
- Click on options
- Click the General Options Tab
- Under Actions you will see Allow Duplicate Names:
- Choose No
Thats it no more duplicates using Google Sync
Find the Export link on the far-right side of the main Contacts page — it’s blue on blue, so they definitely don’t want you messing with it as a primary tool. Hit Export, choose to export “Everyone” and do so in “Google CSV” form. You’ll download a file, google.csv, that should open without much trouble in Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice.org, in Google Docs or other spreadsheet apps.
It is much faster, easier, and in some cases, formulaic to delete and fix entire rows and columns of data with your contacts inside a spreadsheet — no safety prompts, no buttons to push — just pure data. Of course, you can also mess things up if you move a column left or right, so it’s a good idea to make a copy of your initial contact download, then keep that original copy somewhere safe and backed up — or just email it to yourself.
Once you’re done fixing up your contacts, you can make the call as to whether you’re ready to click on All Contacts, select the “All” link above the list, then hit “Delete” and wipe the slate clean. You’d then re-import your CSV file into Google using the Import link, also on the right-hand side, and if you used the Google format, the contacts you chose to bring back should fit in just fine. It’s not a permanent solution, but for those at their wit’s end, it’s easier than searching out and selectively fixing contacts person by person.
The Gmail/Google Apps Divide
Like Contacts itself, the confusion and division users of both personal Gmail and Google Contacts feel between their different Google-y platforms is something Google’s aware of, and more than one engineer has said a big, serious solution is coming.
In the meantime, Gina has addressed the divide at Smarterware and noted that she’s had free syncing service Soocial recommended for syncing contacts across Gmail, Google Apps, Outlook, smartphones and other platforms. You have to hand over your Gmail credentials to a third-party firm, though, and that may kill the deal instantly for some users. For those that would give anything to unite all their address books, it might be quite handy.
This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but a primer on some of the tools we’ve run across that keep Google Contacts updated with other platforms. If you’ve got your own favourite app or service for syncing with Google Contacts, tell us about it in the comments, and we’ll try to update this post with more options.
Almost every mobile phone:All of Google’s desktop and phone syncing services
Google Apps to Outlook: Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook
Google Apps Contacts shared to anywhere: Shared Contacts [Google Apps Marketplace; not free]
iTunes/iPhone: Through iTunes 7.7 and later.
Mac Address Book: Built-in sync option, with or without an iPhone.
That’s our take on how Google Contacts can be made better and more liveable — at least until Google steps up their game. All app recommendations, clever fixes and other suggestions are welcomed in the comments.