Google Gmail Gets Smarter with Priority Inbox Feature

Google launches Gmail Priority Inbox to help users designate some messages as more important than others. Google is joining intelligent inbox startups such as Gist, Xobni and Liaise.

Google joined the raft of startups offering tools to better organize and prioritize e-mail messages Aug. 30 with Gmail Priority Inbox.

Priority Inbox, a new beta Gmail feature users must opt in to use, lets users designate some messages as more important than others at a time when users are buckling under the weight of e-mail overload.

"The idea behind this is that when you walk into your office and have those 150 messages, could we highlight to you the 10 or 20 that are the most important to you?" Google Enterprise Group Product Manager Rajen Sheth told eWEEK.

Gmail Priority Inbox uses an algorithm that automatically flags messages as important, using social cues, messaging frequency and other signals to predict which messages are important.

The algorithm's attributes look at whom a person e-mails and chats with most, how often they e-mail people, and which keywords appear frequently in the e-mails they read.

Once the customization tool categorizes messages, it stacks them in Gmail in sections marked important, important and unread, starred items, and everything else.

The tool shows 25 items by default, though users may change this to show five, 10 or 50 items. Users can also set up filters to make sure certain messages are always designated as important.

The feature ostensibly "gets smarter" the more a user uses Gmail with Priority Inbox because it "learns" what users deem important.

While Priority Inbox is set to work automatically with little work from users beyond managing their settings, users may also "train" the tool by clicking the plus or minus sign to boost or reduce a message's priority. Priority Inbox will learn from these actions as time goes on.

Priority Inbox will be rolling out to all 180 million or so Gmail users over the next few days. Users will see a "New! Priority Inbox" link in the top right corner of their Gmail account next to the Gmail Labs icon.

This will also work automatically for Google Apps users so long as their IT administrators have checked the "Enable pre-release features" box in the control panel of Google Apps.

Users who decide they don't like Priority Inbox can easily switch back to their original inbox by clicking "Inbox" on the left or hide Priority Inbox from Gmail's settings.

eWEEK believes Priority Inbox is likely to appeal most to Google Apps users, particularly the class of knowledge worker who receives hundreds if not thousands of e-mail messages per day in the course of communicating with colleagues, clients and partners for business.

This isn't the first time Google has tried to smarten Google Apps.

The company already has added smart links to let users add links to Google Calendar, added Got the Wrong Bob to differentiate among users, added the ability to drag and drop attachments, and added Gmail contextual gadgets.

Priority Inbox follows in the footsteps of several other companies that are trying to cut through the clutter associated with e-mail overload. Xobni, Gist and Liaise are all tackling this issue.