Published May 2017, last updated November 2017
Instead of folders, Gmail uses labels. It’s a clever system that creates useful possibilities for power users while being mostly transparent to novices. For those in between, however, the way labels work can be confusing at first.
In a traditional email system, messages are stored in containers called ‘folders’ or ‘mailboxes’. You can create your own folders to group messages, for example, into categories like Invoices and Holidays. But even if you don’t, you’ll be familiar with the common folders: Inbox, Sent, Drafts, Spam and Trash (the exact names of the last two vary). Messages can be moved between folders by dragging them. The ‘delete’ command is typically a shortcut for dragging a message to Trash.
In Gmail, all messages exist in one big pool, but each can have ‘labels’ applied to it. Once again, you might create labels for Invoices and Holidays, but what’s different here is that you can, for example, label a message as both of those things (which you might do with an invoice for a holiday). You can apply many labels to a single message if you like. Dragging messages between labels behaves like moving them between folders, because it removes the old label and applies the new one. It particularly helps to learn that Inbox, Spam and Trash are just labels too. The ‘delete’ command removes Inbox or any other labels and adds the Trash label.
For some reason, major email providers are increasingly encouraging us to ‘archive’ messages rather than delete them. In a traditional system, this might move the message to a folder called Archive. In Gmail, the ‘archive’ command simply removes the Inbox label; there is no label called Archive. If you archive a message whose only label was Inbox – that is, you received it but didn’t label it as an invoice, holiday-related or whatever – it now has no labels and can’t be found by clicking any of the label names on the left. The message isn’t gone, and if you want it again, you would typically use the ‘search’ feature to find it. If you really want to, you can also click All Mail on the left. This literally does show all your messages, sent and received — it’s that one big pool.
Gmail is best experienced via Google’s own website at https://mail.google.com. Still, many people prefer to use ‘client’ applications like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail. Because these don’t have a concept of labels, Gmail shoehorns things to fit the traditional concept of folders. This further complicates things for curious users and those who keenly organise all their mail. All Mail might appear in the Archive folder. In older software, the ‘delete’ command may cause a message to be archived instead; to truly delete a message it should be dragged to Trash.
One client that deserves a special mention is Mail on the iPhone and iPad. It can be configured to either delete or archive, but not both. Gmail seems to be a special case where archiving is the default. Because the archive icon just about passes for a dustbin, and appears in the place where the delete icon would normally be, many people don’t realise that they’re not actually deleting any of their email — only archiving it. If you want to change this behaviour so that you can truly delete messages, go to Settings > Accounts & Passwords > [Gmail account] > Account > Advanced. Under Move Discarded Messages Into, choose Deleted Mailbox. Then tap Account (top-left) to go back, and tap Done (top-right).
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