Everything You Need To Know About Gmail's New, Confusing Layout

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.")
  3. 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".
  4. 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.


    The new Gmail is terrible, I feel like they've made it harder to use Email so they can push their crappy Google + to the front. I don't want Google +, it's the most boring social network on the web full of companies, not people.

    Seems a bit silly to me that you can't rename the Tabs, why not I wonder?

      I agree! Seems like it would be an easy update if they wanted to change it.

    I don't know if its just me, but the tabs seemed to have caused havoc with my gmail iOS app - since enabling it, it's always telling me I have half a dozen new emails, when I actually have none.

    Anyone else having this problem?

    I logged in and was presented with some pile of #$%@
    GET OUT OF MY FACE and let ME do what I'm doing.

    I switched back away from the new interface because it doesn't give you notifications of emails that aren't in the primary inbox. Even though anything that isn't in the primary is just an automated email, not getting a notification means it's very easy to miss something if you don't physically go to your inbox.

      You can enable notification on the other tabs, under your account, Manage Labels, turn on sounds.

      How do you revert back to the old gmail layout? I hate this new one. When are companies going to realize that you need to give your clients the option to stay or update. Grr.

    Annoying - on my mobile i have to press multiple times to delete emails from my inbox whereas before the delete trashcan sat at the top of the list.

    Poor Google. It must be hard justifying having dozens of gmail engineers who don't need to build anything - and when they do, they $&@% it up.

    The current implementation of categories and tabs is broken. Google are idiots if they think every single email user in the world lives their lives in 5 categories. Maybe google should revamp google search and foist on everyone categorised search results tabs that mirror these? Microsoft would die under the stampede to Bing.

    They should have implemented something closer to "mailbox", providing ease and ability to deal with all emails quickly and reach inbox zero. Adding more views of the same stuff just leaves users in a constant state of incomplete.

      "Google are idiots if they think every single email user in the world lives their lives in 5 categories."
      Agreed. I'd be interested to see how they came to those categories, too. I'd say that less than 10% of my emails are social/promotional/updates/forums put together. Majority are personal, with a chunk of freelance/work related stuff.

    A step back I am afraid to say...
    Whatever happened to Keep It Simple Stupid.....?
    I am now working to fix the mess this has created and simplify the email system that has come up on my computer.
    Don't for get fellas we are not all involved in million dollar enterprises. Many people are content with the email system which existed previously. At least give us a choice with the new add-ons..
    What you might like to do for us is to get the auto-delete working so that my inbox does not stop receiving emails because the folders are full....

    I guess I'm the dissenting voice - From the discussion here I thought I'd hate the update, but on using it, the social/promo tabs feel like "spam I signed up for" - machine-generated email from websites I use.
    I'm happy to have that cleared out to its own tabs, leaving my inbox for actual correspondence with real people.

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