14 October 2012

How GMail stores your mail

When folks come to GMail for the first time, they instinctively expect it it to work in exactly the same way as the other email services and email clients they have grown used to.

But when Google created GMail back in 2004, they had an opportunity to re-define email and how it worked from the ground up. So - being Google! - they did.

The result is a pretty sleek and efficient mail management system, with no duplicates, no folders, no separate mail streams - just a single mailbox managed with - being Google! - Search. They also went for threaded conversations as the default, and abandoned the time-honoured spreadsheet-like system of sorting mail by column headings, using Search instead to find mail by sender, by subject or by keyword using a capable and combinable range of search terms.

But whilst this is more efficient and - almost - foolproof in operation, it causes confusion among new users because it isn't the model most of us are familiar with. Here's how Google does it:

Labels not folders

The chief source of confusion is the message storage model.  Google's single mailbox is hard for many to grasp, as they are so used to splitting up their mail into separate folders according to their subject, making copies where necessary, and then freely deleting copies from one folder without disturbing the contents of other folders.
GMail, on the other hand, doesn't put messages in subject folders - it puts subject labels on messages. And that's a whole new ballgame!

The system adds labels like Inbox, Sent, Important - users add their own labels like Work, Vacation, Football, Family, etc. Then to see all messages which have any label, you click the label name in the GMail sidebar. GMail does a fast search in your mailbox, and pulls out all matching mail as a set of search results. And as each message can have many labels, a single message may appear in several sets of label search results. This leads to the assumption that there are duplicate messages in the account - which many people mistakenly delete - but of course there are not.
There is just one single message stored in the mailbox, but viewable by selecting any of its labels. As you can see from the illustration above, when you click on a label, you are only viewing a set of search results - you are not viewing mail which is permanently stored as separate copies in separate locations within the account. Delete a message or conversation from any set of label search results, and you are deleting the only copy from the main mailbox.

Things which go wrong

A particular source of confusion is Sent Mail, particularly when used in conjunction with the default conversation view. Some people like to keep a "clean" Sent folder by moving all the mail they send to another folder and then deleting the copy in Sent. In a traditional client that uses the single-message model, and generates copies to put in folders, your own Sent messages can be deleted without making an impact on anything else. In GMail, when you delete a message you have sent, not only are you deleting the only copy of the message you sent, but the only copy of the entire threaded conversation, including the message you replied to and any other messages within that conversation. The only copy will go straight to Trash.
Sent mail is therefore best considered as just that - a permanent set of search results for mail you have sent. Sent messages can be labelled and viewed using other relevant label searches, but the Sent label can't be removed - after all, a message you sent will always be a message you sent!  

Other people like to reply to a message, put it in a folder, and then delete the original they replied to from their Inbox. In GMail, this will have the identical result to deleting a Sent message. The only copy of the whole conversation will go straight to Trash.
In GMail, to remove a message from the Inbox, you remove the Inbox label - just select or open the message and click the Archive button to do that. Or you can do it manually by opening the message and clicking the "x" next to the Inbox label in the message heading. 

Still others might label a message with both Work and a specific Project label. In a client that would mean two copies - one in each folder. In GMail it means one message with two labels, viewable when you click on either of the labels. When the project is complete, if a client user deletes the copy in the Project folder, the copy in Work remains. In GMail, deleting the message from the Project label search results deletes it from the mailbox, and sends it to Trash, therefore deleting it from the Work label results as well.
In GMail, to remove a message from a set of search results, select the message and remove the appropriate label using the Labels button - or you can do it manually by opening the message and clicking the "x" next to the label name in the message heading.

Using Labels

Using Labels is fast and easy.

  • You use the Labels button to assign a label to a selected message or conversation - or you can drag the label from your sidebar into the message.  
  • To label a message and move it out of the Inbox in one step, use the Move button - or you can drag your message to the label in the sidebar. 
  • To remove a label from a message or conversation, select or open it and use the labels button to uncheck the label you no longer want, or do it manually by opening the message and clicking the "x" next to the label name. 
  • Labels can be given colours to distinguish them visually from each other - hover over the label name in the sidebar, and you'll see a little options sub-menu appear on the right, where you can add colours, and choose whether to show the label in your message lists or not, and whether to keep them permanently visible in the sidebar.
  • Labels you don't use often can be "hidden" from the labels list - then when you want to use them, click More... at the bottom of the list to find them
  • You can also adjust the display of your labels to make the most of your sidebar real estate by "nesting" them - so a number of related topics can be grouped under a parent label, and collapsed and expanded at will.
  • If you no longer need one of your user-created labels, you can just delete the label itself - messages that had that label will not be deleted, but will remain in your mailbox, viewable in All Mail, or in search results for any other label you might have given it. 
  • Labels are organised with the System labels first, in a set order, followed by your own list in alphabetical order. If you have some of your labels hidden, when you click More... you will see the hidden labels in a similar stacking order. 

Once you know how the system works, and adapt old habits to the new model, GMail is fast and efficient. The database of stored mail is kept to a minimum, with no duplicates and no surplus copies, so your 10Gb of free storage goes a long way. Mail is quick and easy to find, either by using label searches or the main search box to find other characteristics like senders, date ranges or keywords. There are a multitude of other tools to use - some built in and some available as add-ons called "Labs" - and several pages of settings where you can, within limits, customise how GMail works for you.

Some love it. Some hate it. But all in all, GMail's exactly what Google said it was back in 2004 - different!


  1. I really like Gmail, but, I miss being able to come in contact with a real person that can help me out. I've spent hours going through millions of links without finding any help to my question. Are there no help email or people at all that can help us out when we're stuck?

  2. I agree! I have looked through all the posts in circles, and still my situation doesn't fit. Whatever happened to having a customer service department?

  3. My gmail e-mail has been rendered useless because I am getting a storage quota exceeded error and all the while I can see that I am only using 23% of my storage. Apparently there is 'domain inbox' that gets full and is separate from your known inbox. Getting access to that domain inbox has proven futile and there is NO ONE at gmail to assist.
    I would drop it and move on ( I was one of the first to set up an account when it was in beta ) but it is on all of my business cards etc.

  4. I agree with Tony and Early Rain--HOW much time have I wasted on this for DAYS now...I really have other things to do. Plus I am getting very sick of my spouse sitting next to me telling me how stupid I am. But-he IS right...I mean, seriously, HOW hard can this be?
    See my ? below:
    why do most of my emails have a trash label, go to trash, yet I did not put the label on them in Gmail thank you

  5. I can only display 1 label before it asks me to display more or fewer labels. Regardless I would like to disply mor than 1 label at a time and I am confused on your instructions how to do this. It is very difficult to show just 1 at a time and I can't get to my sent label.
    Please help.
    Thank you

  6. I have 48000 gmails in inbox. Need to delete all at once. Not going to do a page at a time as its almost 1000 pages. I found how to do this once but have forgotten and can't find again.

  7. Ronald - I have answered your question in the Gmail Help Forum.

    Vincezen - ask your question in the Gmail Help Forum as it is irrelevant to the subject of this blog.


  8. And you miss a bigger point: People want to know EXACTLY which messages are still sitting in your servers and which have been completely, thoroughly deleted. Of course - being Google! - nothing is ever really deleted to the point where Google can't turn it over to a subpoena.

    You might also consider the wisdom of a metaphor that users don't understand.



    I think they went home for the night!

    Thanks alot Google!

  10. debi -

    You have posted one unintelligible question on the Gmail Help Forum, plus a brief follow-up, less than 2 hours before coming here with your angry complaint.

    There are a couple of things you need to understand:

    1. The Gmail Help Forum is staffed by volunteers who give up their time to help users solve their Gmail difficulties. Although those volunteers are located all around the world they still need to SLEEP, just like you do. Nor can they spend all their waking hours in the Forum. As it happens, as I write this you have had two responses to your question, so go back to the Forum and view them.

    2. If you want some help, you need to post a question in the Gmail Help Forum, and set out clearly what problem you have so that people can understand it and offer you solutions. If people can't understand your question, they can't answer it and you will get no replies.

  11. Thanks CWD just the explanation I needed to help me understand 'How GMail stores your mail'

  12. I'm glad it made sense for you, Seejayuu - once you understand, the rest of Gmail falls very sweetly into place.

  13. there does appear to be a problem. if you send a mail from gmail web interface to someone else, it gets tagged as sent (as expected). However, if you also collect your gmail using a pop3 client, that message will come in to your pop3 client as a new message to you, even though you actually sent it to someone else. Is there a way to avoid this probably unintended side affect of using tags instead of folders?

  14. It's intentional, Tim - if that did not happen, then the client would have no record of any messages sent from the web interface, leading to a lot of rather one-sided exchanges!

    You can create a rule in your client to move the Sent messages out of the client's Inbox on arrival to any folder of your choice.

  15. Thank you for writing an excellent article on the know-how of gmail. I am new to this format. Going to work a bit with labels so I get the hang of it. Again, very helpful article.
    God Bless.
    - MQ

  16. Glad you found it helpful, MQ - if you're new to Gmail, try the Gmail 101 piece as well.

  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. For all questions unrelated to this topic please go to the Gmail Help Forum


    All further unrelated questions posted here will be deleted.