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5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Gmail IMAP

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Gmail IMAP has been available for more than a month now. It’s been working great for me. I have read that some users are having trouble reading HTML messages on their Windows Mobile devices, but for some odd reason, I can see HTML messages (in HTML, not rendered) just fine on my i730 Windows Mobile phone.

Here are some tips to help you make the most out of Gmail IMAP. If you have not used Gmail IMAP, you can set it up by following the instructions from Google here. I personally use Gmail IMAP on my Windows Mobile 2003 phone, Outlook 2007, and Windows Mail in Windows Vista. However, these tips should work on any standard IMAP client.

1 – Be Familiar with Gmail IMAP Folders

Gmail IMAP has the following special folders:

  • Inbox
  • [Gmail]/All Mail – This folder contains all of your Gmail messages.
  • [Gmail]/Drafts – Your drafts.
  • [Gmail]/Sent Mail – Messages you sent to other people.
  • [Gmail]/Spam – Messages marked as spam.
  • [Gmail]/Starred – Starred messages.
  • [Gmail]/Trash – Messages deleted from Gmail.

Each of your custom labels also becomes an IMAP folder. Messages that have more than one labels will be in multiple IMAP folders.

Your email client may create its own special folders such as "Drafts", "Sent Items", "Deleted Items". These folders only have special meaning to your email client and not Gmail. These special folders can be seen in the web Gmail client as "[Imap]/Drafts", "[Imap]/Deleted Items". To Gmail, these are just additional labels with no special meaning.

If you use Outlook 2007, you can configure it to use Gmail’s Sent Mail folder instead of its own "Sent Items" folder:


Note that you can create more than 1 level of folders. You can have folders within folders:

Gmail IMAP hierarchical folders 

2- To Archive, Move the Message Out of the Inbox Folder

To archive a message, you can do one of the following:

  • Move the message to the [Gmail]/All Mail folder.
  • Move the message to one of your label folders.
  • Use your email client’s Delete Message feature. This won’t actually delete your message, but move it to a folder named [Imap]/Deleted Items. You just have to know messages in that folder are not really meant to be deleted.

    Since I sometimes use the Delete button for its intended purpose (see section 3 below), I do not use it to archive.

    Archive Gmail IMAP message in Outlook

Applying Multiple Labels (Updated Jan 23, 2008)

To apply more than one label to a message, copy the message to the respective folders. "Copy" does not actually create a new copy of the message. There’s still one message stored in Gmail. It just gets a new label.

To remove the message from a folder, move it to the special folder [Gmail]/All Mail. Don’t move the message to [Gmail]/Trash, as that will actually delete the message from all folders (it will be gone forever when you empty the trash), unless deleting is really what you want to do.

(I originally wrote incorrectly that copying will create multiple physical copies. Thanks to Hans Ref for correcting me on this).

3 – To Delete, Move to [Gmail]/Trash Folder

To delete a message, move it to the [Gmail]/Trash folder. If the message is in more than one folder, Gmail will delete those copies as well.

Deleting Gmail IMAP message with Outlook

Using the email client’s Delete feature will likely not really delete the message, but instead move it to the [Imap]/Deleted Items folder.

Sometimes I use the email client’s Delete command anyway, because it’s faster to press the Delete key. Once in a while, I then go into the Deleted Items folder and move messages from there to [Gmail]/Trash. Same result in the end.

4 – To Report a Message as Spam, Move to [Gmail]/Spam Folder

See a pattern now? Most of what you need to do with Gmail IMAP involves moving messages around.

To report a message as spam, what else… move it to the [Gmail]/Spam folder. This is just like clicking ‘Report Spam’ in the Gmail web interface. Don’t believe me, it comes straight from Google.

Likewise, to mark that was marked as spam by Google incorrectly, move it out of the [Imap]/Spam folder.

5 – Import Old Mail

If you are like me, you have archived a ton of old email messages from years past. With Gmail IMAP, it’s easy to import them into Gmail so you can have all of your email messages from all time in one place, all searchable.

Just use the copy feature of your email client to copy those old messages into one of the Gmail IMAP folders. Google advices that you should copy the messages in small group because "uploading an excessive number of messages to your Gmail account via IMAP may lead to being temporarily locked out of your account." Anyone knows what the limit is?

There you have it, my 5 tips to get the most out of Gmail IMAP. For more information on how to use Gmail IMAP, see Google Help Center for IMAP.

Updated 2008-01-17

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This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Hi. Last week I tried to transfer 59 items, many of large mb’s, onto a disc, to view later. I thought I did the right thing, but when playing the disc, there was nothing on it, only the Gmail Shortcut. I like to restore the 59 items back to the In-Box, kindly somebody help, looks like they are all gone, when I thought I had transferred then to the disc and deleted them, can’t find them anywhere?? Please help.

  2. Carl: How exactly did you transfer the 59 items to disk? If they are Gmail messages, try searching for them in Gmail or checking the Trash folder. Chinh

  3. “There is no way to apply multiple labels to a message via IMAP. You can copy the message to multiple folders, but that will result in multiple copies, with each having its own label.”

    That’s not true. I copied a mail from one Outlook Express folder to another, & later on saw the web app listing that single mail as having two labels.

  4. Hans Ref: You are right that the original message in the inbox will be applied with the multiple labels. However, if I look in the target folders, the messages there only have their respective labels. I would think that they should also show the multiple labels. When I have some time I’ll try to investigate this further.

  5. I chnaged the location where Outlook stores sent items to [Gmail]/Sent Items as specified in the post. I now have a little envelope on the [Gmail}/Sent Items folder indicating the change was successful. However, none of the emails I send are being saved here. In fact, I can’t find them being saved anywhere. Any ideas?

  6. Jason: Hmm… not sure what’s going on with your Outlook 2007. I just tested it again in Outlook 2007 on my PC and it worked ok. You may want to check a few other things:

    – Make sure “Save copies of messages in Sent Items folder” is checked under Tools/Options/Email Options.
    – When you compose your new message, check the Options tab, Save Sent Item, Use Default Folder. It should be checked.

  7. Hans Ref: I did a few more experiments and I am sure you are right: copying messages do not create additional copies.

    I tried copying the same message to several different folders and they all show up with the multiple labels in Gmail. I even tried copying the copies.

    Gmail does not show the label for the current folder. So if you are in the “Business” folder, the messages will not be showned with “business” in the message list. Makes sense.

    Thanks for letting me know.

  8. You shouldn’t set the “Sent Items” option in Outlook – you’ll just end up with duplicate items in your sent folder. As long as mail sent from Outlook goes through the Gmail SMTP server, GMail will automatically save a copy into your sent mail folder. With the option you recommend setting in Outlook, you will have two copies of each message – one from Outlook and the automatically created one from Gmail.

  9. Hi,
    I have set my filters up in gmail and the imap folders were created as expected.

    However, the email gets copied to these folders and not moved so I end up with mail in my inbox as well as the subfolders.

    I am trying to get mail to be filtered into relevant folders to avoid clutter in my inbox.

    I could re-create the rules in thunderbird but I would have to do that on all the machines that check the gmail via imap.

    Is there any way to do this on the gmail side side?



  10. The best tips I have read about IMAP! Thank you.
    Besides just the tips, I learnt a lot more from each of the IMAP ‘features’ highlighted in the tips.
    Thank you again!

  11. hi
    I am sure you are right: copying messages do not create additional copies.
    so i am trying reduce the time counting all messages so i want only particular dates
    please reply me.

  12. I am sure you are right: counting all messages .
    so i am trying reduce the time counting only particular dates messages
    so that type of code i needed ,,,,,,
    please reply me.

  13. “To archive a message … use your email client’s Delete Message feature” as the third way to archive, doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.

    In fact Outlook 2010 appears to find and use the GMail Trash folder automatically. So deleting messages moves them to the trash.

  14. David: You are probably right. This was written way back in 2007 when the Gmail IMAP access first came out (I think). Google probably made some changes since then. I’ll see if I can update this article. Thanks!

  15. Hi,

    I just completed my outlook setup – GMAIL to Outlook 2007 via IMAP. Actually my account has no more space to have new incoming emails as this is my company a/c, so i transferred to outlook. I am facing one problem and that is, when i delete any email from my gmail a/c, it does not appear in my outlook. In outlook it should be there, but it gets automatically deleted when I click on send and received all option to refresh my outlook.

    So please help me out with solution.

    Waiting for prompt yet worth reply.

  16. Hi,

    I just tried using your suggestions of using “[Gmail]/Sent Mail” but I get the same error for every folder except Inbox.

    Folder “[Gmail]/Sent Mail” not found.

    Any suggestions would really helpful.

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