The Beginner’s Guide to Gmail | Vanus Creations
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The Beginner’s Guide to Gmail

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By Christine Erickson

Native Gmail users have become so adapted to the service, it’s hard to think anyone doesn’t know the basics.

Luckily, Google supplies us with practically unlimited data, so there’s plenty of room for newcomers.

Whether you’re just getting started on email or jumping ship from another client, this guide will help you get started. From setting up an account to organizing your inbox for maximum efficiency, you’ll be a Gmail warrior by the time you hit the end of this post.

Setting Up an Account

Getting started on Gmail is pretty straightforward. First, you must create an account.

One of the most frustrating parts of setting up a Gmail account — or any account, for that matter — is getting the address you want. These days, it’s rare that you get your first choice of username, but there are a few ways to get an address you actually like.

Once you’ve jumped that hurdle, the rest of your setup should be easy. Google will ask for a backup email address to send password information, in case you ever forget it. You’ll also need to give a phone number, but I have yet to receive any calls or texts from Google.

If you don’t already have a Gmail account, you’re likely not familiar with a lot of the terms that come with it. In order to understand some of the tips below, here’s a basic overview of Gmail vocabulary for reference throughout this guide.

Labels – A Gmail label is basically the same as an email folder, but each email is able to exist within multiple labels.

Filters – A filter is a setting that automatically applies specific tasks to an email before it even lands in your inbox. With filters, you can automatically apply labels, forward messages, archive or delete emails.

Stars – Stars are like labels, but you can only apply them once. Starred emails get pushed to the top of your inbox, marked as priorities.

Google+ – When asked to update your profile, or to customize your account with a photo, you must sign up for a Google+ account. It’s not required, but Google syncs all of its products, so you’ll need to join the social network to have a profile.

Chat – You can instant message contacts using your Gmail account. The Google application is called Gchat.

Hangout – This video chat feature also requires a Google+ account. If you want to video chat, it’s called “Starting a Hangout.” Both parties must have Google+ profiles and webcams to participate in a Hangout.

Apps – Apps are additional third-party features that can be used to change the functionality within and customize your Gmail account.

Import Your Contacts

If you’re making the jump from AOL or Yahoo mail, your old contacts can easily switch with you.

To import contacts and messages from another email account, sign in to your new Gmail account and click the gear symbol in the top-right corner of your account,

Select Mail Settings, and visit the Accounts and Import tab. There, you’ll see an Import Mail and Contacts button.

Threaded Conversations

Gmail structures its messages in threaded conversations, rather than linear. Most email clients arrange email chronologically. Gmail messages are grouped in a hierarchy by topic, and any replies to a message are arranged visually near to the original message. A set of messages grouped in this way is called a thread.

This is convenient feature for emails that are more conversational than consumption-heavy, as if you were speaking with another person, rather than just reading his newsletter, for example. Basically, Gmail clusters messages by subject.

Google’s search engine is built into Gmail, so you can always enter keywords in the search box to find exactly the email or conversation you’re looking for.

Basic Settings

When you select an email, or checkmark it from the inbox, you can apply several commands. Access the bar of useful tools at the top-center of your inbox, right below the search bar. These features help you navigate the inbox and stay organized.

From left to right, the arrow button functions similar to a browser’s back button, returning you to the inbox or folder from which you opened a message.

The dark folder with an arrow pointing down is the archive button. Think of the archive like the attic or garage of your account. It will remove a message from your inbox or folder, but not completely delete it, in case you need to go back to it later.

Though you’ll see a significant decrease in spam from your Gmail account, there’s always the individual messages that need tending to. Mark any spammy email using the button with an exclamation mark.

To delete an email, select the trash can button. The email won’t disappear completely for 30 days — or until you empty the trash, using the settings to the left of the page. (Any settings made before emptying the trash can be undone. Gmail will give you the option immediately after, or you can search for the email and tweak its settings.)

If you used another email client, you know that folders are your friend for keeping organized. With Gmail, labels are your new friends. They categorize your email, so things like bills, shopping, work and your personal life remain separated. Of course, things aren’t always so black and white. Labels let you place an email into more than one category.

Stars help prevent emails from getting swallowed by your inbox. Placing a star on an email pushes the message to the top of your inbox. You can go into settings and change colors, and for really important messages, make it a superstar.

If you simply can’t live without folders, or want to remove some of the clutter in your inbox, click the folder button on the toolbar and move an email to a category. This simultaneously labels a message and moves it out of your inbox.

There are a number of other features in the “More” dropdown menu, but the most important is the filter tool.

Filters allow you to automate your inbox, causing the most important emails to rise to the top. It’s especially useful for when you are required to give an email address just to sign up for something. You can filter emails with specific addresses or keywords, then decide whether they should be deleted, archived, marked as read or forwarded.

You can also access all of these tools through your settings. Look for the gear icon in the top-right corner of your Gmail.

Sending an Email

Once you’ve gotten past navigating your inbox, perhaps you’re ready to do what you signed up for in the first place: send an email.

Select the Compose button on the top-left of your inbox. Gmail opens a clean, empty message with your labels and basic editing options. You can also attach a file by clicking the appropriate link under the subject line or simply by dragging it into the message.

When selecting a sender, start typing the first few characters of the recipient’s name. Your contact list will automatically auto-populate with names and addresses.

While you’re writing the message, you can click away at any time — Gmail automatically saves the draft.

Chat and Hangouts

Gmail’s advantage is that it presents multiple ways to communicate within one site. From your inbox, you can email, instant message chat or video chat. In order to video chat, you’ll need a Google+ account.

Gchat, formally known as Google Talk, is good for sending quick, direct messages to other contacts who are logged in. Because it’s in real time, it’s more intimate than a regular email.

To chat with someone, simply send him an invite through the settings in your contacts. Hover over a contact in your address book and press the speech bubble. Once he’s accepted your invite, you’ll know when he’s online by looking at the chat box to the left. A green circle next to his name means he’s available, red means busy and grey indicates the user is offline.

As noted before, video chat is a feature integrated by Google+, called “Hangout.” In order to start a Hangout, all parties must have a Google+ account. You can hangout with up to nine people.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of Gmail, there are useful keyboard shortcuts and other tricks that will turn you into a Gmaster. Google also has great resources for gradually moving toward Gmail mastery.


There are plenty of ways to customize your Gmail with backgrounds and apps.

Click on the gear icon to change your inbox density, in other words, its size. There are three settings: comfortable, cozy and compact. Depending on how large your display is, you can select the best font size and number of emails you can view per page.

Under the same gear icon, you can also access themes, which offer various backgrounds for your inbox. You can choose a solid color, a high-resolution image or even a cartoon.

Finally, for the more advanced, there are applications that let you bring Gmail to the desktop, manage email lists and other forms of productivity.

Got another tip for Gmail newcomers? Leave your feedback in the comments below.

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