Google's Gmail has led the way for years now as one of the most popular free email services on the web, both for technologists and lay users alike. Gmail's approach to email management has always been a bit unique (which can also mean "hard to get used to," especially if your email usage patterns are based on years of Microsoft Outlook experience). Being proponents of search - after all, that has been their bread and butter for years - Google downplays the use of folders for organizing messages, and provides a large handy search bar at the top of the Gmail interface. In fact, folders aren't available in Gmail at all, other than the default ones such as "INBOX," "Sent Mail," "Trash," etc.
While this is a new way of looking at message management, I find I usually need more than a mailbox search to locate email messages I need - either single items or discussion threads. If you know exactly what you're searching for then you're in good shape. But what if the topic is vague, you're not sure how the keywords are spelled, or you'd like to see multiple messages pertaining to a project (e.g. "Router Upgrade") which may not contain the same keywords?
This is where labels come in. Labels are tags you can apply to email in order to categorize messages the way you want them to be grouped. For instance, in the case of an equipment installation project, you could create a label called "Router Upgrade" and then assign this to the emails you want. Later on you could find all pertaining items with a single click - literally! Multiple labels can be attached to emails (for instance one label identifying the project name AND one label identifying the project sponsor) to help optimize your organizational skills. You can also create nested labels, which is a label (or even multiple labels) grouped underneath a label. While labels have to be applied BEFORE you go looking for these items, once you make this is a habit you'll find it's a breeze to find what you need in your Gmail mailbox.
Creating a Gmail labelTo create a label, look on the lower left side of the Gmail screen for the "More" option:
Click "More" (if it is not already expanded):
Click "Create new label" and a helpful dialogue box will appear:
Enter your label name and click "Create." In the example below, I'll create a label called "Google Notifications."
You will return to the main email screen where you can see your new label on the left side:
You've just created a top-level label. To apply the label to email messages, simply drag and drop the desired message(s) onto the label, or do the reverse by dragging and dropping the label onto the message (you can also check off the messages and use the "Label" icon in the horizontal toolbar if you're feeling old-fashioned).
A notification that you've added the items to the appropriate label will appear:
You can click the label on the left side of the mail window to see all items that match it. If I click Google Notifications then the affiliated messages are shown in their own window:
To create a nested label, click the top-level label on the left side of the mail window and choose the down arrow. For instance, "Google Notifications":
Click "Add sublabel" at the bottom of the window. The following box will appear:
You can enter the new label name (for instance, "2014"). Note how "Nest label under:" is already checked off and shows the top-level label underneath you'll create this sub-label:
Click Create. You'll return to the main email window.
You won't see the nested label immediately, but you will see an arrow to the left of your top-level label as shown. Click this arrow and the nested label will appear underneath and remain visible.
As previously discussed, you can either drag-and-drop messages onto the nested label or vice versa in order to use it. Note that as you add labels to a message they will continue to appear in the subject lines, and that nested labels are shown in the format of [top-level label]/[nested label] (e.g. Google Notifications/2014 as shown on the right side of the window):
If you wish to create lower levels of nested labels you can do so by following the same steps; for instance a label called January under the sublabel called 2014. There is no limit to the levels of labels you can employ.
To change a top-level label to a nested label, click the down arrow to the right of the label name, choose Edit, then check off "Nest label under:" and select the label underneath which you'd like to move this one.
To manage your labels and nested labels, click "Manage labels" in the left side of the Gmail window:
Nested labels are slightly indented under their parent labels. You have the opportunity to show/hide labels, show them only if they apply to unread messages, edit them, or hide them entirely. Don't worry, if you delete a label you will not delete the corresponding email messages.
For new users unfamiliar with Gmail's interface, it does require an open-minded attitude and a willingness to embrace change. Email power users who are new to Gmail and have relied on dozens or even hundreds of folders in the past may find the concept of nested labels a bit daunting - especially when considering having to comb through several gigabytes worth of messages to label each one individually. However, a leap of faith such as this usually pays off and a different approach to email organization can save you hours if not days of your life.
For instance, you can shortcut the process by only applying labels to items you truly need to reference, using one or two levels of nested labels, hiding the labels you don't use consistently, and moving outdated items to the Gmail archive where you can always search for them later if desired. With a bit of practice and a habit of diligence in managing your labels, you'll soon wonder how you ever got by without nested labels and the power they provide.
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.