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Gmail labels for messages can be a bit confusing until you realize that labels are labels.

After switching to a much larger one-terabyte hard drive, I've lost my Microsoft Outlook, at least temporarily and I'm having to use Gmail, which is much less friendly. While I can file incoming messages into a label, I don't seem to be able to copy them to another label. Am I just being stupid or is there something in Gmail that would let me do this? In other words, file messages in several places at the same time?

In this excerpt from Answercast #84, I look at Gmail's concept of labels and how that differs from folders in other email programs.

Gmail labels for messages

You're not at all being stupid. The problem here is that Gmail's labels are not folders, and we tend to think in terms of "folders," especially when we've come from a folder-based program like Outlook or others.

In Outlook, for example, you might place an email into a folder and then, quite literally, make a copy of that message into the other folder.

How labels work

That's not how Gmail actually works. In reality, the deep, dirty secret about Gmail is there is in fact only one folder and that folder contains all of your mail.

Everything you do with Gmail has to do with labels. When you are looking at your inbox, all it is showing you is those messages in this big bucket of email that happen to have the label called "Inbox."

Adding multiple labels

So, to give things multiple labels is actually very simple. Label it once with whatever that first label is - and then label it again.

You're not making a copy of the message; you're just applying two different labels to the same message. Then, when you take a look at messages filtered by a label, this message will appear.

When you look at messages that include the first label or when you look at messages that include the second label, this message shows because it has both labels. And that's all it is. Labels are quite literally "labels."

A label is a label

The best way to think of them is as if you had a piece of paper, and that one piece of paper was the email message - and you are simply putting a label across the top of that piece of paper. That's all that Gmail is.

It's something that I know a lot of people have a conceptual hurdle getting over. I know I did. It was very difficult to get my brain around the concept when I first started using Gmail. But once you get used to it, once you understand how it works, it becomes incredibly powerful.

Labeled messages into folders

Now, the one thing I am going to point out, that also further confuses this use of labels, is that when you access Gmail using an IMAP client (in other words a desktop email program like Outlook or Thunderbird or something else, that connects to your Gmail account using the IMAP protocol, I do this myself), what happens is - since desktop email programs don't support this concept of a label, but they do support this concept of a folder, the labels in Gmail get translated into folders on your desktop email program.

  • If you've got a label that's marked "A" and a label that's marked "B";

  • And you apply that label to one message in Gmail (in other words, there's a single copy of the message and it has a label called "A" and a label called "B");

  • When you connect via IMAP - what happens is that the desktop email program will suddenly have a folder (a sub-folder typically of your inbox) that's called "A" and another folder that's called "B";

  • And yes - in that case, you will end up with two copies of the email message: one in folder "A" and one in folder "B" on your desktop email program.

In Gmail, it is still a single message; it's a single email message that has two different labels on it.

Labels vs. folders

I know that also contributes to the confusion between this concept of labels and the concept of folders. But like I said, it's a powerful one once you get your brain around it. It does take a little bit of thinking and understanding of how Gmail works but that's really all it is.

So the bottom line to answer your question is: if you want to have two labels on a message in Gmail, you're not making a copy of it, you are simply applying the label to that single message and then applying another label to that same single message.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Next from Answercast 84 - How do I backup my AOL email?

Article C6207 - January 2, 2013 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
January 3, 2013 2:44 PM

Gmail gives you two options for handling email, label it or move it to a folder. So, either it supports folders as well, or it uses its labels to simulate a folder. However, unlike labels, folders does not allow you to place it in multiple locations.

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