Impressive New Feature Makes Gmail’s Inbox Smarter

PriorityInbox(wide)

A few days ago, Hilary Mason, a data-mining engineer at N.Y.-based, URL shortening service, Bit.ly, made news for her attempts at creating a smarter email inbox that kept the important and urgent messages ahead of what are messages of less importance. Some of us eager for Ms. Mason’s creation might have a near-term solution to handling the backbreaking load of email, thanks to Google and the engineers behind the Gmail team.

The company today is launching a new feature (in beta) for its popular Gmail service — Priority Inbox – which uses machine-learning technologies and marries them to Google’s search capabilities. Keith Coleman, the Gmail product director who’s been working on the product since its birth, explained that Gmail watches for things like who’s sending or receiving messages and if those people are in your contact list, then looks at other elements, such as whether the item might be spam and if the messages belong to a mailing list. It also peers into headers to make better sense of the message and give it more context.

The Priority Inbox allows important emails to surface and stay up top, pushing the less relevant stuff into the background. When the Priority Inbox fails, well, you can train it by using the +/- buttons that are part of the new menu.

(Full description from Google Blog is below.)

Now, I’m not a big fan of web-based email. I prefer the comforts of Mail.app desktop software client. By using a combination of rules, smart mailboxes and some specialized and custom scripts, I’ve beaten my email inbox into submission. It’s not that I have much of a choice; with over 1500 emails a day, I’m at risk of losing important messages, as well as spending too much time on irrelevant stuff. My email system is admittedly held together by the proverbial Band-Aid, but for me it works.

Nevertheless, for the past three days, I’ve been forcing myself to use Google Apps’ web interface, with Priority Inbox turned on. The feature is impressive and fantastic, and works as effectively as Google’s spam filters. In fact, it works so well that you almost forget it’s still in beta and hasn’t been a standard feature. Google’s been testing it internally with 10,000 Googlers and few non-Googlers. The feature has impressed me enough that I’m considering abandoning my own methodology in favor of this web-based marvel.

On a typical day, I won’t bother with the release of new features of software or a web service, but for this one, I’ve made an exception. Information overload and the perilous state of email are two issues very near and dear to me. For past five years, I’ve been writing and arguing about a whole new way of thinking about email, because what we have doesn’t seem to work. (Related: All Hail The Gmail.)

“What we want to do is give people some of their time back and with this new product we are starting to make a dent, “ Coleman said. We need help: According to research firm The Radicati Group, a typical corporate user sends and receives about 110 messages every day, while nearly 294 billion emails are sent every day. The average number of corporate emails sent and received per person per day will climb to 228 before 2010 is over. Those are some scary statistics, especially because email is now supplemented by even more data sources like Facebook and Twitter, only adding to what has become the new malaise: infobesity.

Gmail is off to a good start!

What is Priority InBox?

Priority Inbox is a new view of your inbox that helps you focus on your most important messages. It’s based on the belief that personal data is following the trend of web data—while manual organization alone worked initially (e.g., organizing websites into directories), algorithmic solutions (e.g., web search) have taken over as information has exploded in volume. Just as Gmail has always automatically filtered the bad stuff into the “spam” folder, it now also highlights the good stuff. It’s like your personal assistant, helping you focus on the messages that matter without requiring you to set up complex rules. Priority Inbox splits your inbox into three sections: “Important and unread,” “Starred” and “Everything else” (Google Blog)

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