12 December 2011

Google Circles in Gmail and Contacts

After design changes and mixing social functions into and Picasa, it’s now Gmail’s turn to be integrated with Google+ and your circles. As announced on the official blog, I started to see the new features in my inbox. The less important ones, for me at least, include easier sharing to Google+ with a dedicated button displayed when you receive photo attachments and adding people to Circles from the newly added people widget. Not much else to say here; the nice part about sharing is that they also added a button to ‘Share all images’, so that when someone emails a group of photos you can immediately create a Google+ post with all of them.

Social filtering added to the inbox looks much more promising, at least at first. A new link has been added to the left pane, ‘Circles’, that can be expanded to display a list of your circles from Google+ with unread counts for each. Clicking on any of them will search all your mail for messages to or from people in that circle; or from any of them, if you click the master link ‘Circles’. The idea is good, since it will filter out any newsletters or one-time conversations with people you haven’t circled, but it’s far from new, as Hotmail implemented filtering by contacts some time ago. It solves a long-standing problem as well, the need to quickly find messages from a group of people; it can be done with regular search, but it becomes very cumbersome as the number of people rises. You can also choose to have membership to circles displayed in the message list, sort of like having automatic labels based on your circles.

Gmail with Google CirclesUnfortunately, the integration in Gmail is lacking in several areas:

  • First of all, it requires the user to rebuild existing circles instead of importing contact groups. So it fails on two accounts: people who have already gone to the trouble of carefully maintaining contact groups probably won’t bother recreating them again from scratch; the others who haven’t are unlikely to start now.
  • Google+ doesn’t understand that a person can have multiple email addresses. For example, I am constantly prompted to add myself to a circle, because I imported my address book with my secondary aliases; similarly for other people I can add one address to a circle and the second one to another circle. While this could be useful in separating work from personal interactions it can confuse users and also dilutes the whole concept of ‘a single identity’.
  • Circles are not available as search criteria, so you can’t look for unread messages from a certain circle for example or from a certain time period. Update: They are now!
  • Displaying circles in the message list along with labels can quickly take up the screen space needed to show the email subject. It would be better to add some customization options, to move labels and/or circles to the right side, allowing the subject to be displayed entirely. It should be an email client after all, not a label collection, right?

The most promising addition was made to ‘Contacts’: the information entered by other people for themselves is now automatically synced to your address book, as long as you are connected on Google+ and have the proper approval through the privacy settings of that contact. This has great potential to make managing the address book much more streamlined and hassle-free for everyone. Instead of announcing a new home address, job or phone number you could simply update your contact information and all the people in the circles you approved will instantly have it in their address books as well. The new data from Google+ has it’s own section in the contact details, so you won’t loose any information already entered for someone, even if they choose not the share those details with you. As in mail, you can filter your contacts by circles and even export selected circles as you would do with any contact group. Unfortunately, like any other similar tool, the success and usefulness will ultimately be decided by the adoption rate of Google+. And bringing in additional Google+ contacts creates the same problem Buzz introduced a year-and-a-half ago: unwanted contacts that get synced to smartphones and generally a messier address book. Right now I have too few Google contacts with a Plus-profile – many don’t even use Gmail – to find this extremely compelling.


  1. I was interested to read your notes about Google+. I have a big problem with it because until now I have not understood where it is hiding my contacts. I have lost all my addresses and phone numbers I needed for Christmas, and of course I still need them. Have you any helpful advice on where to find this information or is it irretrievably lost?

  2. Normally enabling Google Plus shouldn't affect any of the existing contacts, it only adds new people in circles. Have you checked on your Google+ profile on the Circles tab? You should find all your contacts there. Otherwise, try visiting the direct link:

  3. How to search mails within cicrle...
    like e.g. is:unread in:Cicles/Friends


  4. Unfortunately, I don't see any way to do that right now. You can't search only circles, nor is it possible to add search operators after you filtered your mail by a specific circle. The funny thing is, there is still an option to search Google Buzz in the default search options...