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Google looks to make your e-mail smarter with Priority Inbox

August 31, 2010 |  6:34 am

Google is rolling out a new feature called Priority Inbox for those of us who suffer from e-mail overload.The feature will pop up as an option for Gmail and Google Apps users starting Tuesday.

Priorityinbox Priority Inbox divides your inbox into three sections: “important,” “starred” and “everything else.” It monitors your messages and sorts them based on a number of criteria, including how often you correspond with the sender, how often you read a message that contains certain keywords and whether the message is addressed just to you. The most pressing messages appear at the top of your screen so you don’t miss them and can respond to them first.

Interestingly, one of the technologies used to determine whether e-mail is important is based on how Gmail determines if a message is spam.

Keith Coleman, Gmail’s product manager, said Google had been working on a way to solve e-mail overload since it came out with Gmail. The idea is that over time, as you interact with the new system, it gets smarter, figuring out what’s important to you. Gmail focused on its power users so it could solve the biggest problems and make life easier even for light users.

“This is the new model for getting through your inbox,” Coleman said.

During testing with 10,000 Google employees and thousands outside the company, Google found that users spent 13% less time reading e-mail, adding up to a week’s worth of time saved each year. “Once people started using it, they couldn’t go back,” Coleman said.

To be fair, that has often been the case with products made by other companies that have tackled the inbox overload problem in Gmail or Xobni, which works with Microsoft Outlook.

From my unscientific testing, Priority Inbox works pretty well. One click on a prompt asking if you want to enable Priority Inbox, and it’s activated. You can choose from a few options, such as keeping important messages in that section even after they are read. You can also tell Gmail if it has mistakenly decided a message is important when it isn't. But keep an eye on that “everything else” section where Google sometimes mistakenly dispatches important messages.

“Every person has a different opinion on what an important message is,” Coleman said. “Getting that to work is really hard.”

-- Jessica Guynn

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