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November 22, 2011

7 things GMail Search needs to change

My General Complaint:

If you've had a gmail account for many years, either for work or personal, it's getting large enough that GMail's search is starting to break.

Anything word you can think of to type in will match tons of useless results.  Eventually, as you try to think of more words to add, your results count goes to zero.

If you were lucky enough to have starred the email when you saw it, or can remember who might have sent it, or maybe the approximate timeframe, or maybe you think you might have sent the email in question from this account, you *might* have a chance.

A Tough Problem:

I realize this seems like classic precision and recall troubles, but Google is pretty smart, and they a fair amount of metadata, and a lot of context about me, so there's some potential fixes to hang a hat on.

And some of my ideas involve making labels/tags (Gmail's equivalent of folders), but that assumes that people are using labels, which I suspect many folks don't, or at least not beyond the default ones you get.  Well... sure, but they DO have them, and there's an automated rules engine in Gmail to set them, so presumably a few people use tags / labels?  (or maybe nobody does and, in hindsight, maybe a legacy feature!?) So, if you're going to have labels, and you've got even a few users who both with them, then make them as useful as possible.  AND maybe make Labels more visible, maybe easier to set, more powerful, etc.

On To The Ideas:

1: Make it easier to refine search results.

Let's face it, as you accumulate more and more email, the odds of finding the email you want on the first screen of search results goes WAY down.

Google wisely uses most-recent-first sorting in search results, vs. their normal relevancy, in the GMail search UI.  I'm not sure why, this seems like an odd choice for them given all the bravado about Google's relevancy, but I'm guessing it was too weird to have email normally sorted by date in most parts of the UI, but have it switch back and forth between relevancy and date as you alternate between search and normal browsing.  Also, maybe they found it's more likely you're looking f or a very recent email.  You could fold "freshness" into relevancy calculations, but just respecting date keeps it more consistent.

Yes, GMail does have some search options... I'll get to those, but suffice to say they are very "non iterative".

Other traditional filters should be facets as well.  "Sent" emails, date ranges, "has attachments" (maybe even how many, sizes, or types)

2: Promote form-based "Search options" to FULL Facets

You can limit your search to a subset of your email if you've Labeled it - this is the GMail equivalent of Folders.  But doing this is a hassle (see item 3), and you can't do this after the fact, once you're looking at results.

So, if you do normal text search, and then remember you labeled it, you can't just click on the tags on the left of the results.  Those are for browsing, and will actually clear out you search terms.  These should be clickable drilldown facets, perhaps even with match counts in the parenthesis, and maybe some stylizing to make it clear that they will affect the current search results.

Yes, there's a syntax you can use:

lebal:your-label regular search terms

It's a nice option for advanced users who are accurate touch typists and remember the tag name they want, but this should also be easy from the UI.  Yes, there is an advanced search / search options forms, but this brings me to item 3...

(read the rest of the ideas after the break)

3: FIX the "improved" advanced search in the "new look" GMail

They've changed the UI so now you have to use the drop down arrow at the right edge of the search box.  This is a neat idea by itself, but it keeps going away!  Because it goes away, even if you do use labels, it's harder to access them when refining a search.

Maybe let me "pin" that panel somewhere?

There's also "bugs" with the order with which you interact with the dropdown form.  If you want to search with a tag, you need to be careful.  Do NOT type in the upper search box first, you must use the pulldown.  Then you select the tag/folder from the dropdown.  Then you must put your search terms in the "includes words" box and NOT the upper search box.  And if you make the mistake of typing some text first, and then doing a drop down form, then the sub-dropdown list to choose a folder, it ignores that selection!  I have theories as to why this is, but won't go into them here.

Also I'm not sure the dropdown is as visible as it could be, although maybe GMail would argue that nobody seemed to notice/use the old "search options" hyperlink.

When you consider items 2 and 3 on my list together, GMail could VASTLY improve searching within folders.

4: Fix the Default Scope of Search !

When you do a search, Google includes EVERYTHING, including the text of every mailing list you're on.

In a classic email system I'd say "let me set which folders to look in by default", but it's not that simple with GMail.  There are no "folders" per se, just labels.  And most people don't even bother to tag/label that much.  But if you DO label things, there ought to be a way to leverage that in your default scope.

One SIMPLE thing that some systems do is that, if you're currently browsing in a folder, then the default scope of a search is that folder.

Or maybe in my settings, if I've got labels for low priority items, maybe let me set a policy to NOT include them by default.  This is a bit convoluted... maybe not ideal, although better than nothing, and I know at least 1 person who'd use it.

5: Fold in some of new priority rules with regards to search

It feels like GMail should know the difference between mailing list emails vs. conversations I've had with coworkers, associates and friends.

I suspect some of this powers the new "Important" rules engine, which I really do applaud Google for trying out.

What I really want to tell Gmail is "search in email I care about", or conversely, "STOP including email that I obviously DON'T care about", and maybe have this be based on the rules Google is working on.

I'm sure this is more complicated than my statements make it sound.  It's easy for me to point to example emails that'd I'd clearly want included by default, and emails that I clearly would not.  But when I think about the specific rules an email system might use, it's a bit cloudier.  For example if I say "Only people I've communicated with", does that mean people I've actually emailed?  So newsletters, which I've only ever received but never sent email to, would be caught.  But what about my company's CEO?  I've received email from him or her, but maybe never SENT an email, so the CEO emails would also match the "newsletter" lower relevancy rule.  Sure sure, you could create some more rules to handle this obvious "edge case", but any rule you come up with might have other edge cases.

My point is that the Gmail team has probably thought about a lot of these things, and it's probably just way more complicated to do this really really well, without having false positives and false negatives annoy millions of users.

I'd like to see a clickable facet for each of their trained guesses.

6: Some innovative way to do complex date filtering

Most people don't need complicated date filters.  And if you just want recent email, that's easy because that's the order.

But once in a while you know an email was NOT recent.  Although you can page through results, that gets annoying.  I've seen various ways of handling this over the years, and some are not very elegant, so I don't have a specific suggestion.

7: Create a Power Sieve feature for advanced GMail users

Currently Google has their rules tab under the settings area.  If you have dozens or hundreds of rules this gets to be a hassle to manage, so GMail should overhaul this anyway.

But in doing so, they could make it really awesome.  Let users see emails go through the system, which emails are going where.  Let us click and drag rules around, connect the output of one to the input of another, and re-apply them.  Give us more actions to take when rules are triggered.  Heck, how about letting me change the color?

Another sieve-related task that'd be nice is cleaning up the old emails.  You can do this now, but it's complicated.  And yes, Google is happy to sell you more storage space, but it'd still be nice to clean up old cruft.

Rationale for Change

Server Side Matters!

GMail's rules are "server side", they're running even when you're not connected.  Contrast this with Microsoft Exchange's rules which, despite the mention of server side rules, has so many exceptions that a majority of the rules revert to client-side, and require your PC to remain connected.  And if you reconnect after being offline for a couple days, your machine has to catch up, pouring through hundreds of messages, before you can get any real work done.

And now.... the arguments AGAINST doing any of this.

The Atypical Use Case Dismissal / Rationale:

I've worked in high-tech for quite a while and had product feature debates from both sides of the isle in various roles.

There's a tendency to completely dismiss features that are deemed unlikely to be used.  Or the non-emergency usability tweaks get pushed back, release after release after release, and wind up never getting done.  This is depressing.  I hope Google / GMail doesn't get into this mode.

One implicit false assumption is that each postponed feature's improvement is an independent  increment contribution to the product or site.  This is not true.  As products fall behind, the small annoyances add up in a non-linear way, to make the product seem old or lame.  Once products accumulate a few dozen (or hundred) of these deficiencies they are eventually abandoned, sometimes in a sudden precipitous way, which can confuse the heck out of a product manager.

Another false assumption is that if you can't prove that people use it, or you can prove that's a very low number, then it doesn't matter.  This is false in part because these supposed low usage numbers are taking as raw figures.  For example, suppose I'm aware of an advanced search feature, but rarely use it because I usually don't need it.  My "raw" usage rate might be only 1%.  But I *KNOW* the feature is there and available, so for me this counts as an almost 100% adoption rate.  This is difficult to explain sometimes.

Also, there's a non-linear affect of early adopters and power users in influencing others.  Google properties have done well in the past at leveraging this.

By implementing Rules and Labels, and other advanced GMail features, Google has demonstrated that it will cater to the advanced users, at least in the past.

Now that gmail accounts have been around for years, this is creating freshness and relevancy problems that didn't exist when it launched.

In modern times the 3 big emails rules engines I've messed with are Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, Mac OS X Email, and GMail.  Since GMail's rules are 100% server side, they have the most potential, although the UI of the Mac and even Outlook for managing rules is superior.

GMail could step up and go way beyond their competitors.  Remember, Google does have a commercial offering for enterprises, so there's real money there.  And although Office 365 is finally deploying, I'm guessing true server side rules with lots of power and features are simply not one of the priorities.  If I'm wrong, please let me know!


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