Tuesday, August 08, 2006

GoogleOffice Part 1 : Business GMail

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Desktop email clients are old and broken. The new hotness? Web based email for your domain.

In many ways GMail is the cornerstone of my GoogleOffice. So for Week 1 I'll spend some time justifying GMail, before passing on some tricks. This is a big topic, so I'll leave most of the crossovers with other Google services for when I discuss them specifically later.

It was sometime around 1999 when email at work stopped being a useful convenience and started being a necessary evil. Until recently, web based email was Outlook's ugly step child. You would never have considered something like Hotmail as a business email client (rightly so!) -- in fact people actually used Outlook Web Access for Exchange to access work email via the web(!).


I know people who return from a week's holiday and delete their whole inbox.

"If it's important they'll send it again"
Seriously. Is that how to do business? GMail has instant search results and lets you filter and label, so you can quickly get to the important stuff in an overcrowded inbox. These days you expect to be online, so you can download just for a local offline 'cache' or backup. This alone will change the way you think of business email. Gmail is a strong Google offering. Gmail for your domain is a robust, web hosted, email alternative that still provides POP3 access for local copies.

Using GMail for Domains For Your Company's Email Hosting

Enough evangelising, on to business. Let's look at:

  • A business case for justifying the switch to GMail for your domain.
  • How to get a hosted 'GMail for your domain' account.
  • Using labels and filters effectively.
  • Some tricks and tips for maximizing GMail's effectiveness.

A Business Case

Here's a short list of reasons for you (or your boss) to switch to GMail:

  • 2Gb online storage capacity. All your emails are accessible from a web interface, plus you've now got a robust offsite backup strategy.

  • Conversation View. One of GMail's most addictive features. 'Email chains' are displayed as conversations, grouped together with their replies, including all different participants over long durations. Once you've had this for business you'll wonder how email could ever have worked without it.

  • Instant search. Search the complete email text; search by sender, recipient, date, or label. Search in Outlook is so ridiculous it's been relegated from both standard Windows search shortcuts -- 'tis neither F3 nor Ctrl-f (it's F4) -- my recommendation? Hold down Alt before you trigger your next search in Outlook.

  • One SMTP server for outgoing mail. If you're using a desktop client, you can use Google's outgoing mail server no matter how you connected.

  • Use Google Calendar within your company. Share calendars and events using your domain email addresses instead of separate GMail ones.

  • Great web interface. Better than anything your ISP will provide, better in fact, than any desktop client will provide.

  • Excellent spam filter. Invaluable in a business environment; I've had zero false positives and only 5% of spam slips into my inbox.

  • Presence and Instant Messaging. GoogleTalk and GMail chat provide presence and IM between all your workers (and your clients). All your IMs are logged in your email -- as part of the email conversations that spawned them. For privacy you can go 'off the record'

  • VOIP with Voicemail. GoogleTalk has VOIP functionality, and these days also lets you receive VOIP voicemail in your GMail inbox. Sweet.
  • Email aliases for business roles (and individuals).
  • Internal mailing lists.
  • Mobile phone access. Via GMail mobile access.
  • GMail for your domain is free.

Why not a normal GMail account?

  • For business email? Seriously, if it's work, you've got to be sending it from your business domain. Maintain your brand and professionalism while taking advantage of GMail functionality.
  • Hosted email is more stable than its public cousin.
  • Google Calendar is fully integrated -- more on this later.

Getting GMail for Your Domain

Happily, this process is straight forward. Go to https://www.google.com/hosted and click 'I'm Interested'. You'll need to be logged in on a Google Account. Answer a series of questions about your company, the most important are 'number of users' and 'why do you want it?'. Be honest. For tips on the latter, look above at the business case :)

It'll take a couple of days to process, so far I've seen either 25 or 100 accounts provided. If you've got a requirement for more, contact Google -- they've provided GMail for domains for several universities already.

Filing with Labels and Filters

Every company I've worked in has issues with email filing. In business it's vital to easily track:

  • Full conversation threads/chains. Particularly contract negotiations and/or disputes.
  • All emails from anyone at a particular client.
  • Any correspondence from anyone mentioning a particular product or service.
  • Emails from everyone to do with a particular project.
The result in Outlook usually ends up like one of these:

The first layout is highly structured and needs careful maintainance. The second effectively forces you to have multiple copies of each email in different folders. Ouch. Filing with folders is a poor metaphor for email, and labels are the solution.

Labeling for Business

Create a label for all your: clients (Upstream), projects (06/007 Field Visualization), and products (IE:DEV). Add all relevant labels to each email. In paper-land this is stupid. To search, you'd have to go through each piece of mail to find the ones with the label(s) you want -- but GMail does exactly that, in about 3 nanoseconds -- so it works!

Now label your emails auto-magically, as they arrive, with a few simple filters. Emails will then be presented in your inbox with the right labels pre-applied. At a glance you can see what each email is about without having to open it.

  • Clients. You know Bill works for 'Upstream' so create a filter that labels any of his emails as 'upstream'. Do the same for anyone else at Upstream -- or anyone with an @upstream.com.au address.

  • Products and Services. Create a 'Has the words' filter for all your products and services. Any mention of 'IE:DEV' or 'DEV' will get labeled accordingly.

  • Projects. GMail features '+' notation, so you can create arbitrary email addresses of the form 'Reto+ThisCanBeAnything@intervention.com.au'. GMail will deliver them to you with the full name. Why does this rock? For each project, create a new email address using + notation (Reto+06_005@Intervention.com.au). Distribute this email to other project members, and set it as your reply-to address when you send project email. Then just add a filter that applies the project label whenever you receive an email addressed to this new address. Sweet!
There's no need to add a year label as it's trivial to search by year (after:2006/01/01).

Your inbox will be populated with messages pre-labeled by client, project and product. Unlike Outlook, GMail doesn't presume that labeling something means it doesn't still belong in your inbox.

Tips and Tricks

I've included a bunch of tips and tricks under links below, but here are a few that are particularly useful at work. There are plenty more I'll go over, but most of them relate to using GMail with other Google services, so I'll talk about them later.
  • Create and share a label in Google Reader specifically for internal broadcasting using Webclips within GMail.
  • Get mobile access to your important business emails. Creating a standard GMail account and use filter rules to auto-forward all important messages to this account. Auto-forwarding lets you use any number of any filter rules to forward messages.
  • 'Save searches' with browser bookmarks. Perform a search in GMail, then create a bookmark in your browser. Opening this bookmark will open GMail with the search performed.
    This works for any complicated search -- like your two top clients in 2006: (label:BHP OR label:Woodside) AND (after:2006/01/01).
  • Similarly, you can save a bookmark for composing new messages.
  • For those of you who can't let go of a desktop client I know of two options:
  • Opera. Opera's mail client supports labeling exactly the same way as GMail. Point of fact, Opera was doing it first.
  • Hosted GMail Client (Unofficial). I've never used this but could be worth a look.
  • Any other POP3 desktop email client. GMail provides POP3 access to your email so you can access it from any desktop client.

Useful Links

Next Time

Communicating with Clients and Customers -- Google Style

Email is good, a web presence is better -- but excellent customer communication should be dynamic. Next time I'll talk about creating a company blog, using Google to add dynamic (ad free) content to your webpages, providing real-time support and interaction with clients using GoogleTalk/Chat, and using Google Coop to become a part of their everyday web searching.


  1. Anonymous1:12 pm GMT

    I thought the Terms of Use Agreement stated that Gmail could not be used for business.

  2. I don't thnik so -- do you have the relevant section? I'd be suprised as that would seem to go against the point of Google Applications for Your Domain.

  3. Anonymous8:11 am GMT

    Under Google's terms, point no.2, it's for personal use only.


    However I wonder whether we're talking about the paid account and not the free one.

  4. Anonymous5:59 am GMT

    Very useful article, thank you.

    But, would you recommend using Gmail for business if the client needs to send end-to-end secure email? I doubt Gmail is useful for that scenario.