Understanding Gmail


Though Google’s Gmail is a popular e-mail service it is probable many users do not really comprehend how fundamentally different the system is to other well known ones such as Yahoo, Outlook (Hotmail); AOL, etc. The differences need to be understood to avoid errors that could have serious impact. Much of the confusion comes from users expecting Gmail to operate in the same manner as all other e-mail systems. It does not.

Important!: Do NOT delete any emails within Gmail until you have read the following! You may regret it!

Labels v Folders

Fundamental to understanding Gmail is understanding its storage (filing) system. Despite how it looks on screen, Gmail does NOT use folders.

Traditional Folders

Traditional email systems (e.g. those mentioned above and others) allow users to file multiple copies of an e-mail within different folders, either those already provided by the system or ones subsequently created by the user. For example: Copies of a work related e-mail could be filed in a variety of folders such as ‘Work’; ‘Meetings’; ‘Deadlines’; and so on, as appropriate. The user is then able to work with the e-mail within each folder, separately from the copies held in other folders, thereby creating a unique set of actions relevant to the subject matter of the individual folder. Any action the user takes within an individual folder does not impact upon, or affect, copy e-mails held in other folders.

Gmail Labels

Before discussing how Gmail stores and actions e-mails it will help to first understand its label system.

What is a label? A label is simply a tag (a subject label) that is attached to an e-mail to identify its purpose and topic relevance. Multiple labels may be attached to an individual e-mail. Some, such as ‘Inbox’, ‘Spam’, ‘Sent’ etc. are automatically applied because, of course, they are relevant.

In the same way a user is able to create a folder within traditional e-mail systems, they may create labels. As with folders, labels are shown in, and accessible from, the left-side of the screen. Labels are like a series of post-it stickers attached to a document (there is only one document but there can be multiple post-its). To create a new label the user just has to scroll to the bottom of the left column, select ‘More’ then click ‘Create New Label’. A dialogue box appears into which the new label name may be entered. As with most systems, it is possible to ‘nest’ a label under a primary one. When all information has been entered the ‘Create’ button is clicked and the label is added to the list on the left.

Users may apply one or more labels to an individual e-mail, in effect mirroring the folder system of other systems. They do this by either ‘dragging’ the e-mail to the label on the left or by opening the e-mail and selecting the ‘label’ icon from the menu bar above the e-mail (shaped like a sideways bookmark – toward the end of the menu list) and choosing the label or labels to be applied. There is no limit to how many labels may be added.

Gmail Filing (Strogage)

Here is the fundamental difference between Gmail and other e-mail systems:

Gmail only stores ONE copy of an e-mail.

In fact, it is not a copy: It is the original that is stored.

This is very important to note because the ramifications are far reaching.

Whereas other systems allow users to make multiple copies of an e-mail and file them in separate locations (folders) and to deal with them individually without the action having any impact upon the other copies, Gmail does not. All actions are attached to the one copy. Where a discussion gives rise to more than one e-mail, a conversation thread is created meaning, because there is only the original e-mail, any and all actions will impact the entire thread.

To emphasise: Though, while in the Gmail system, it may appear there are several copies of an e-mail, there are not. ONLY the original e-mail exists. Everything else simple reflects the label(s) that have been attached for the purposes of categorisation and topic relevance.

Advantage: By virtue of only filing the one e-mail the system saves considerably on storage space. A bonus for users, especially those utilising the free option.

Locating e-mails

Most online users will know, as already mentioned, Gmail is part of Google, a company principally know for its search functionality. It is this function that is used when a user is looking for a specific e-mail. The user has two options: 1) Select an appropriate label, from the lefthand sidebar, to display all e-mails which have that label attached; or 2) Use the main search box, at the top of the screen, and enter such things as: sender details; date; keywords; etc. Whichever option is chosen Gmail carries out a search of the account and then displays all e-mails located. This may sound a bit more longwinded compared to how traditional systems work with their ‘hard’ folders but it is in fact very fast and efficient.

All Mail

Users will have noted there is a permanent label ‘All Mail’ in the side column. This is where all e-mails (received and sent) may be found. The label is automatically added to every e-mail. Users will see, when the contents are displayed, a relevant topic label is shown in the second column which can help when searching for a specific e-mail or thread.


Many people, especially independent (indie) authors, find themselves very busy in the current, hectic, internet based society. As a result, inboxes can become very full and cluttered thereby creating a distraction the user could do without. Of course, this does not mean the e-mails crowding the inbox are not relevant or important but often they can be left until the user has some ‘spare’ time (as if that ever truly happens). Archiving, as opposed to deletion, is GMail’s answer to keeping inboxes ‘clean’.

When an e-mail is archived it is automatically moved to ‘All Mail’. Initial thought is this will make it hard to find among all the other e-mails listed. However, the system caters for this by not adding a label to the e-mail (the ‘inbox’ label is suppressed for the time being). This is a simple method that causes archived e-mails to stand out from the rest. When their busy schedule permits users: can go to the ‘All Mail’ label; find the archived e-mail; read and deal with it as appropriate either by selecting a relevant label or by deletion. Unless sure they no longer require the e-mail, users should NOT delete an e-mail prior to this. (See ‘Deleting’ below for further information.)

To archive an e-mail: open the e-mail and select the ↓ icon from the toolbar immediately above the e-mail content display.

‘Important’ Label

To try and help users Gmail does its best to identify which e-mails they think the user will view as important. The following is an extract from Google’s own guidance notes:

Gmail uses several signals to decide which messages to automatically mark as important, including:

  • Whom you email, and how often you email them
  • Which emails you open
  • Which emails you reply to
  • Keywords that are in emails you usually read
  • Which emails you star, archive, or delete

To see why an email was marked as important, hover over the importance marker.

Note: If an email was marked as important but you don’t want it to be, click the importance marker to change it. This also helps Gmail learn which emails you think are important.


This is where many users go wrong!

The important issue here is to remember the primary fundamental difference between Gmail and other e-mail systems. That is, to repeat:

Gmail only stores ONE copy of an e-mail.

In traditional systems, where more than one copy of an e-mail may be filed, it is possible for users to delete an individual copy without that deletion impacting other copies. For example (using the scenario previously outlined): copies of a work related e-mail could be filed in a variety of folders such as ‘Work’; ‘Meetings’; ‘Deadlines’; and so on. If the copy held in the deadlines folder is subsequently deleted it is only that copy that will be deleted. The remaining copies, in the work and meetings folders will be unaffected. However, with Gmail it is different.

Deleting an e-mail in Gmail, no matter from which location, DELETES THE ONLY COPY.

Confusion often arises with regard to Sent Mail. Many like to keep the folder clean by moving e-mails to a relevant folder and then deleting the copy held in the ‘Sent’ folder. Doing this in Gmail will result not only in the original e-mail being deleted but also the entire threaded conversation.

Note: If a users wishes to delete a single message from a thread but not the entire thread they may do so by: opening the message; clicking ‘More’; selecting ‘Delete this message’.

Users may not like the fact e-mails remain visible within all labels but should appreciate, especially if they are using the free option, this method saves considerably on storage space thereby enabling their free accounts to be used for much longer periods without the need to purchase additional storage space.


Naturally there is a lot more to Gmail than covered above. However, the aim is simply to provide an overview and to highlight salient differences.

The primary points to note are: Gmail’s storage system and the impact of deleting an e-mail.

Reminder: Deleting an e-mail, from any location within Gmail, will delete the one and only copy held within the system together with any other e-mails in the thread.

Apologies for length of this article. Consideration was given to splitting the content into two but that seemed inappropriate.

Disclaimer: Beside being users of the system, neither T. R. Robinson Publications nor T. R. Robinson have any affiliation with or to Google. Nor do either receive any remuneration for referring to or mentioning them or their subsidiaries.

4 thoughts on “Understanding Gmail

  1. I’ve just deleted thousands of emails from my trash as a result of losing stuff when I was de-commissioning my old iPhone. I hope you have lots more blogs about how gmail works Tanya, there is so much I don#t know!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes please do Tanya – I would love to find out how I can get rid of that annoying black bar on the lower left of the page and why – in my one gmail account if I reply or forward it goes into the set box and I have to go and find it and then put it in the inbox and then put it in the correct file – while in the other gmail account it stays in the inbox and I can put both into the correct file.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With respect to your reply/forward issue Lucinda: I assume ‘set’ is a typo and it should be ‘sent’ Presuming that is correct there is an easy way round the issue. First, all replies and forwarded e-mails automatically have the ‘sent’ label attached and therefore appear in the sent string of e-mails. They cannot be removed from that string, unless deleted which of course means the whole string will be lost. The way to get your reply or forwarded e-mail to show up under the label you want is to attache the appropriate label to it either from the tool bar above the e-mail content display or by ‘dragging’ it to the label in the lefthand column. Hope this helps. Will have a look at the other issue when researching what other aspects of Gmail it may help to highlight in the new year.


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