Quick Tip: Use Inbox tabs in Gmail to organize your messages

Google has added some new tabs with corresponding categories to the Gmail inbox. Find out how you can make the most of this feature.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia: the Tab soft drink turns 50 this year.

 Figure A

If you grew up during the 60's or 70's you may have experienced the iconic taste experience represented by the above can. Whether you liked it or not, I'm sure it was memorable. I tried Tab just once ("Once," Joe Piscopo hissed in the film "Johnny Dangerously") as an eight year old and wondered whether the soda had gone sour. I didn't realize at the time it was intended as a sugar-free drink (later replaced by Diet Coke, although Tab still exists in some places).


How does Tab soda factor into the new tabbed Gmail interface? To show that tabs have an enduring and distinct history - in fact, in technology they continue to be all the rage, no matter what medium (unlike their liquid counterpart, at least in my view). Since Firefox first created the tabbed browsing experience in 2002 the same handy view has been applied to Office documents, Windows Explorer, my company's backup administration tool, and even the command prompt.

Google is getting further into the game by providing a new tabbed Gmail interface to bring similar benefits to its users. Like many of its product updates, this is being released gradually on a scale rather than all at once. You may have already received a welcome email from Google announcing that the feature has been applied to your inbox.

Figure B


As you can see, the default tabs are "Primary," "Social" and "Promotions." Gmail automatically groups new email into these tabs based on the following criteria:

  • Primary - Friends/family/default location/items you've starred (think of this as your "Main" inbox).
  • Social - Emails from social media/websites involving gaming or dating for instance.
  • Promotions - Marketing messages (A Groupon deal for example).

You can drag and drop items into the correct tab to manually reorganize them (or right-click the item and choose "Move to tab.") This will give you the option to have future messages from that sender go to that tab next time.

Here's what it looks like for a typical user (image courtesy of

Figure C


The new message count is displayed for each tab so you can easily keep track of what has come in lately.

You can also add two other tabs called "Updates" (for financial messages, receipts and confirmation notifications) and "Forums" (for emails from online discussion groups/forums) as shown below.

Adding and removing your tabs

Click the + sign to the right of the tabs to customize your view.

Figure D


You can check or uncheck the options depending on your preferences. Unchecking ALL options will turn off tabs entirely. There is no way to rename these tabs, however.

If you don't see any tabs at all (and thus no + sign to click), you might need to turn this function on to begin with.

Figure E


Click the gear in the upper right to reveal the following menu.

Figure F


Choose "Configure inbox" and the above "Select tabs to enable" window (Figure D) will appear, so you can add the desired tabs.

The new look isn't just for browser-based Gmail; this is also available on Android (4.0 and later) and iOS devices – so long as the tabs are already enabled in your browser. Here's how it looks for Android (image courtesy of

Figure G


For more details, check out a Google video discussing the new features.

Also read:


Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.


I had my inbox nicely organized so that I had:

* unread important : to proces asap (delete, mark as unimportant, archive, or stay in Inbox as read-important)
* read important : list of important stuff to do
* unread : to process asap (delete, mark as important, archive or stay in inbox as read-unimportant)
* read : list of less important stuff to do

this worked very well for me, but the 'unwanted' upgrade broke this system.  all read messages now get archived automagically.  Is this a bug or was this intentional ?  Can I reconfigure this ?

I don't really care: I want to go back to my working system.  These tabs don't give me anything useful (maybe if i can create my own - but then I still want them on the same screen like my previous inbox system)


I am using the new tabs in my inbox.  First I found out that the "promotions" tab was a new way for Google to add new commercials at the top of this tab.  Therefore I quickly moved all of my messages that were by default in that tab to the "UPDATES" tab.  Now most of my messages go to the UPDATES tab.   

I would like to add a "BILL" tab, so that I can move all of my e-Bills to one location, so that I don't miss paying an e-bill. 

After 40+ years of commercials I feel like the parrot in the "Aladdin" movie. "Polly want a cracker?". I am definitely anti-commercials.  

I use labels as folders to store old messages, I don't know if there is a way to have to system pre-label an email without my physically setting it.  Outlook has that capability. But I have not been able to find that facility in Gmail. 


No. As a whole, the choices are useless to me. I'm not into social crapola and I get enough spam without having more junk sent to me. If I could select my own category, then I would find it useful. I use Yahoo for my primary e-mail address. First, they haven't placed limits on storage space (yet). Second, I can create folders where I can store e-mails via "my own category" designation (sub-folders would be a nice feature). 

My biggest complaint with Yahoo is they are always "fixing" what isn't broken and "claiming user error" when you identify something when it breaks! Their old e-mail format was fine, but then they switched to this new format and a number of things no longer work under the new as well as the "Basic" mode plus they are inconsistent with each other where the support is the same (deleting within a message goes to the next in the new (just like it did in the old) and back to the Inbox in the "Basic". Some "context" menus no longer provide the ability to "open in a new tab but do in the "Basic". 

Google has a chance to take Yahoo "to school" by adapting some of Yahoo's better features (from both old and new versions). What would really be nice is to allow users to do some real tailoring besides background screens and the like.


Thanks Scott and Mark. I find these new Tabs super helpful. They help me stay in tune with my priorities for the day and make things a lot more manageable. I would love to add another Gmail addition to the discussion that has helped me stay sane - The Scoop Composer ( It is a contextual gadget in Gmail that connects with my CRM, Salesforce. This means that whenever I open an email, I can see all the relevant info I need about the person sending it and can save a lot of time and respond better to that person. Thanks again for the great article. I love Google Apps! Rachel


I want to add extra tabs so I can define where emails go ( effectively creating rules for filing emails. )


Why bother? Maybe if I could use my filters & labels as tabs that would be worth something but prelabeled uneditable tabs really don't offer anything new. Seems like a step backward.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

Are you taking advantage of the new tabs in your Gmail inbox? Why or why not?

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