How Gmail's Priority Inbox Sorts Your Messages

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Q: I'm a long-time user of Gmail's Priority Inbox feature, but I still have no idea how the service is sorting through my messages. What does Gmail consider important?

A: I've been using Gmail's Priority Inbox feature since it first launched, but I wasn't a big fan right out of the gate. I couldn't figure out how Gmail was sorting my mail. What was considered a priority and what was left to rot in my standard inbox under the tag "Everything Else?" But I kept using it anyway: I like having my working drafts appear on the main inbox page in their own cluster and I was too lazy to switch back. Instead of having 100 unanswered e-mails weighing down on my virtual shoulders whenever I log in, I now have two sections of one inbox with 50 unanswered e-mails each.

Over time, though, Priority Inbox has been getting better. Every once in a great while, I'll click on the 'Important' and 'Not Important' buttons to shift a message up or down. (These buttons are the yellow pentagonal images that precede your subject lines; they look like mini home plates from baseball.) With each click, Gmail trains itself so it can better classify future messages.

By hovering over the buttons for a second, you can see why it is that Gmail decided each individual message deserved a bump up into your Priority Inbox. If I go through my inbox now, I get a variety of answers: A .pdf copy of N+1's What Was the Hipster? is important "mainly because it was sent directly to" me; a message about Atlas Obscura's upcoming Obscura Day is important "mainly because of the people in the conversation;" and an exchange with BoingBoing's managing editor is important "mainly because of [my] interaction with messages in the conversation." Another reason for moving an e-mail into my Priority Inbox I've seen is that it was found important "mainly because of the words in the message."

These brief explanations, which you can also find by clicking on 'show details' when reading an individial e-mail, give us a little bit of insight into how Gmail is sorting through our mesages.

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More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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