Gmail is rolling out a new tabbed interface for the inbox on both desktop and mobile. At first glance, this looks great for email organisation. On further inspection, these new tabs are confusing as hell. Here’s how to make sense of the new tabs and customise them for your own filters.
How the New Tabbed Interface Works
Google describes the new tabs as a way to “put you back in control so that you can see what’s new at a glance and decide which emails you want to read and when”.
You get five optional tabs, described by Google below. Google automatically sorts your inbox into these tabs using its special algorithms (essentially matching many of Gmail’s existing Smart Labels, which automatically filter incoming messages):
- Primary: person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs
- Social: messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services, and other social websites
- Promotions: deals, offers and other marketing emails
- Updates: personal, auto-generated updates including confirmations, bills, receipts, bills, and statements
- Forums: messages from online groups, discussion boards and mailing lists
You can also choose to force starred emails from all tabs to display in the Primary tab (in addition to the other tab).
How to Enable and Use the Tabs
To enable the new tabbed view, go to the Gear icon and select “Configure inbox”. Once you do that, you’ll be prompted to choose which tabs to enable and Gmail will start doing its magic, auto-sorting your inbox.
You can drag-and-drop emails from one tab to the next; when you do that, Gmail will ask if you want to create a filter for that sender to send messages in the future to that tab. Handy! It doesn’t, however, move existing emails into that tab.
You can also create your own filters to send emails into specific tabs, as we’ll see below, but that’s tricky if you don’t understand how the new tabs differ from Gmail’s existing labels and which messages get sorted into tabs.
Why the Tabs Are So Confusing
The tabs do give you a convenient way to automatically sort your inbox according to Gmail’s preset categories and get notifications at a glance for when new emails come in. However, the tabbed view introduces a new, not-so-clear element in Gmail called “categories”.
The tabs are based on these new categories. When you create a filter, in addition to being able to label a message, you can now categorise it as: Personal, Social, Updates, Promotions or Forums from a drop-down box. These, as you see, match the tabs.
The problem is, you already have labels that also match these categories. Gmail, for example, adds Social Updates, Promotions and Forums as SmartLabels in the left menu. The “Notifications” SmartLabel corresponds to the Updates tab (I wonder why they didn’t just call the tab Notifications), but SmartLabels are not the same as Categories. Gmail’s pre-designed SmartLabel filters makes it seem like that, but they’re really two different things.
I also noticed one problem where certain messages would show up under a SmartLabel, but not a category. For example: Some auto-labelled “Notifications” didn’t show up under my “Updates” tab.
It turns out the tabs only include emails from your inbox, not archived emails. In other words, the tabs are really just another view of your inbox. You can have more emails in the corresponding label than in the tabs if some of those emails are archived.
So, a few things we’ve discovered from testing:
- If you have filters for daily deals emails and similar emails that would get categorised by Gmail as “Promotions” but have it set to skip the inbox (archive them), you won’t see them in the Promotions tab unless you change those filters. The same goes for the other tabs.
- If you want to filter messages into a specific tab, you’ll have to use the new “Categorize” option, not the labels.
- Gmail has added a new “Categories” label in the left menu with sub-labels for the categories, which match the tabs. In other words, all the messages under specific tabs are also in the corresponding Categories sub-label. Tip: If you want to briefly switch away from tabbed view and see all the emails at once across all the tabs, click on the Categories label.
- Now you’ll have labels and categories with the same names. If you want to avoid confusion, you can just delete the old SmartLabels, since you can still access them through the categories in the sidebar. Alternatively, you could just hide them from the sidebar so they don’t clutter it up.
- If you want to see the unread count for messages in the tabs, you have to click the Categories label name to expand the sub-labels. The tabs themselves only show when you have new messages, not the number of unread messages.
- Continuing on that theme, the unread count in the inbox label and browser tab only show the Primary tab number of unread messages, not all of your unread messages. That is by design.
- As mentioned above, when drag-and-dropping across tabs, you can create a new filter for future messages. However, this doesn’t work if you select multiple email messages and drag them, unfortunately.
- Confused yet? Gmail’s SmartLabels aren’t perfect, and neither are the tabs. Gmail has been consistently labelling some personal emails as Promotions and putting some promotional emails in the Primary tab for me. It also seems like there’s a fine line between Social and Forums messages.
All of this said, it may be possible to harness the organizational power of the new tabbed interface to suit your needs better.
How to Customise the Tabs with Your Own Filters
As mentioned above, you can now create your own filters to categorise messages, thus putting them in one of these tabs. So if you have no use for the “Forums” tab, you can instead use it to collect messages from specific senders or keywords. Unfortunately, there’s no way to change the tab name.
The key is to make sure the filter doesn’t overlap an existing filter that might counteract what you’re trying to do. For example, you can’t have “Skip the inbox” on a matching filter, otherwise it won’t appear in the tabs at all (since the tabs are organisation for the inbox).
To customise the tabs:
- Create a new filter for the messages you want moved to one of the tabs. (For example, since I have no use for the Social tab on my work email, I’m using it instead to store emails I send to myself from my personal email address. In the search box, I put in “from:[my email address]” and click the down arrow in the search box to find the “Create filter with this search” link.)
- In the filter options in the next screen, choose the category that matches the tab for the “Categorize as” option. (E.g., I chose “Categorize as: Social.”)
- You’ll also have to check “Exclude from SmartLabels” just in case Gmail tries to categorise your email differently (as it did for one of my test emails to myself). Then hit “Create filter”.
- If you also want to prevent Gmail auto-categorising other messages in that tab, you could also go into your Settings > Filters and scroll to the bottom for the SmartLabel Filters and disable or edit the corresponding filter. However, do this with caution, as it seems there’s no easy way to restore the built-in filter. It might be better to configure Gmail’s SmartLabels so they skip the inbox and thus skip your tabs. About.com’s Email site has the list of each SmartLabel. For example, “label:^smartlabel_promo” for Promotions. When creating your filter, search for that “label:^” term to filter it out as you’d like.
At the very least, the new “Categorize as:” filter can help you correct any Gmail errors when it comes to SmartLabels. For example, by creating a filter to categorise fellow Lifehacker editors’ emails as “Personal”, they now appear in my Primary tab, instead of, oddly, the Promotions or Forums one. They’re still strangely smart-labelled as Promotions, but at least they’re in the right tab.
Thinking about Gmail’s new tabs, SmartLabels, regular labels, and filters can feel like you’re trying to solve an annoying circular reference error in Excel. However, the new tabbed view might come in handy if you know how to harness it.
And, if it’s not for you, it’s easy enough to get back the old, non-tabbed view if you prefer that Priority Inbox or other option.