Terry Zink's Cyber Security Blog

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

Google’s Priority Inbox feature

Google’s Priority Inbox feature

  • Comments 3

I must confess, I rarely use any of the Gmail features that are advertised as being really great.

The reason is that I have a Gmail account and I never log in to it.  Instead, I download all of my Gmail into my Thunderbird email application.  So things like a fancy UI, nice searching, etc, is all pretty much a big “meh” for me.  So long as it has POP3 capabilities (I don’t need IMAP), I get it all into my Thunderbird application and if I want to sort it I do so into one of 18 subfolders.  Starred messages and all that stuff are pretty much meaningless today.  The only feature I want is the ability to download it to my local client.  I barely list spam filtering as a requirement because that is a given.  If an email service doesn’t provide spam filtering by default, I would never use it.  It’s like buying a car without tires or a steering wheel.  Nobody would do that unless you had a very specialized purpose just like nobody would get an unfiltered account unless you wanted to use it as a honeypot, for measurement, for analysis or some other specialized purpose (incidentally, this explains why I all but abandoned my Yahoo mail account – POP service is not free and the spam filter isn’t very good).

However, the one feature from Gmail that caught my eye is the Priority Inbox, which was released by Google in late August of this year (2010).  You can watch the video explaining it here and read about it here.  Briefly speaking, Priority Inbox is a feature where Gmail bubbles up your contacts in the web UI where you access your mail.  The messages that are important to you are shown above the bulk messages that are not.  For example, if you have an inbox that looks like the following, such as you talking your friends Jim, Frank, Craig and Barney, and get emails from TD Ameritrade and Amazon, it might look something like this:

From      Subject
Frank      Dinner tonight?
Barney    That money Craig owes you
TD Ameritrade    2010 Vanguard Funds
Craig       My latest get-rich quick scheme!
Amazon  Good News! We have recommendations for you!
Jim          Don’t listen to Craig if he contacts you about a business opportunity

Priority Inbox rearranges the order of these by placing the most important contacts at the top of the list:

From      Subject
Frank      Dinner tonight?
Barney    That money Craig owes you
Craig       My latest get-rich quick scheme!
Jim          Don’t listen to Craig if he contacts you about a business opportunity
TD Ameritrade    2010 Vanguard Funds
Amazon  Good News! We have recommendations for you!

Because many of us are overwhelmed with email inbox overload, Priority Inbox gives you an easy way to check the mail that you want to check first at the top of the list by making it aesthetically appealing.  Google achieves this by looking for patterns of communication between yourself and the people in your inbox, as well as what messages you choose to read.  Thus, they customize your email reading experience by looking at what you have done in the past and predicting that is what you will do in the future (incidentally, this is the theory behind technical analysis of the stock market).  We all have our own Priorities in real life – if we go to the supermarket, we skip over some aisles and head straight for others to pick up the brands we want.  We have our favorite restaurants that we go to over and over.  We watch certain TV shows over and over and have the channels or URLs memorized.  We frequently organize our bookshelves and refer back to the same reference material over and over.  Sports teams have a small set of plays that they have as their “go-to plays”.  Indeed, there is very little in real life that we don’t prioritize.  We need these mental heuristics in order to function in real life because the information overload would overwhelm us.

The Priority Inbox feature is a way of automatically generating a Safe Sender list.  I’ve never been a big fan of safe senders because it required input from the user.  It’s always been my position that a filter should be smart enough to tell the difference between spam and non-spam.  However, a passive user safe sender list is a way of increasing a filter’s accuracy such that the chances of missing a legitimate mail are very small because you’d be able to tell when a user wanted to receive something.  I still don’t advocate being more aggressive on the rest of the mail, but this is a very good step in the right direction for ensuring that a user gets the mail he or she wants to get.

Is anyone else out there using Priority Inbox?  Is it a useful feature in real life?  Or is it mostly fluff that doesn’t add that much value?

Leave a Comment
  • Please add 8 and 6 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • I use Gmail for my primary email, and I almost always use the Gmail web interface (I do also use the POP and IMAP features sometimes).  Priority Inbox, for me, mostly means sorting the unread mail to the top.  I found it to be insufficiently good at distinguishing "important" mail from "less important" mail that I abandoned that feature.

  • I use Gmail, and have the priority inbox turned on, but rarely use it; I suppose my inbox isn't high traffic enough to be much use -- my e-mail is more often than not a read-only notification system (Facebook notifications, e-mailed pictures, etc.). However, I've noticed that it's prioritization is often wrong for me. I wonder if what the rules are : I always archive things, even those things which I consider junk or unimportant.

  • You can mouse-over the little icon and it tells you why something was marked as important. But I agree, it isn't very good yet; still, it's a nice idea to have two degrees of importance in one's inbox.

Page 1 of 1 (3 items)