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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

E-mail Management by Filters and Rules

My Predicament

In recent times, I've been beset by the type of problem that few can imagine, yet will face sooner or later: My e-mail account has been drowning in a deluge of newsletter subscriptions, updates, notifications, and other gobbledygook. Of late, I had a look at my GMail and discovered that there were several thousand unread e-mails! The numbers floored me. I had to do something about it.

Whatever works for you, you can use. So, start blocking spam immediately!


In this article, I will share with you some of my learnings from the past few days. I've had a good experience in trying to sort out my GMail, Yahoo! and Hotmail (Outlook.com) accounts. E-mail management is similar, but alike, in all three e-mail providers. But first, a little story about my folly...

Desktop E-mail Clients: Opera Mail, Mailbird Pro

The first solution I tried was desktop-based e-mail clients. Ever since I downloaded Opera browser a couple of weeks back, I've had positive experiences with Opera. So the next logical thing to do was to try out their e-mail client, Opera Mail. I linked it to my Yahoo account and it faithfully began to download the various e-mails. 

One reason for doing that was, I am already used to using GMail's keyboard shortcuts. I found Yahoo's email keyboards foreign and weird. For example, "x" for selection of emails, and "GI" for "Go to Inbox". Slash brings me to the GMail's search box. I earnestly tried to give Yahoo's inbox a spin and found that "M" would bring you to the inbox (M=messages) and "S" would bring you to the search box (S=search). But how about selecting multiple emails? Yahoo could only give me up-and-down with shift, for selecting multiple emails. If I pressed up-and-down without shift, the previous selection was unselected. Rather unintuitive and frustrating.

While we're on the topic, it seems that "J/K" for "Next/Previous" as a keyboard shortcut isn't limited to GMail. It's also available on Facebook and Twitter. So maybe Yahoo can incorporate GMail shortcuts into its services, as an alternative. It would be nice if we could just click a button that says, "Use GMail shortcuts instead of Yahoo Mail shortcuts." And voila! Easy transition from GMail to Yahoo Mail.

So back to the topic on hand, I tried Opera Mail, and found that I could do selection / deletion more easily than if I had used the web portal. But I wasn't satisfied. And so I looked around and found Mailbird Pro. I don't know if it's a promotional tactic, but every time I visited Mailbird Pro's website there would be a notification box on the top saying, "Get Mailbird Pro at discount.... xxx hours remaining." After an hour or two, I'd visit the website again and see that there's "xxx hours remaining". That succeeded in creating some sense of urgency in me and decided to buy Mailbird Pro.

Now, since this is a blog about saving money, the question is why buy proprietary software at all? I decided that my time was worth money, and that I was losing money by not being able to get to the truly important e-mails. Worse, by responding late to e-mails, or missing them entirely until it was too late, I would be seen as incompetent. There are a few things that a person can do to improve first impressions, and I decided then and there that responding in a timely fashion to e-mails is going to be one of them. (At least for me.) I got the lifetime updates for the current version, which means that I'll be up-to-date for the next few years.

Mailbird Pro is aesthetically pleasing. They've tapped into the want of the modern tech end-user that wants customizations. They have a number of themes, which yield not only difference colour schemes but also some repeating patterns which makes the e-mail list look quite funky and artistic.

One of the other features that I liked was the "Speed Reading" feature that they had. Simply press Shift-S and the whole e-mail would be displayed in a single line, a few words at a time. In a minute or less, an article about the length of this blog piece would have just flashed before your eyes. If this blog piece was about my life (it is!) then you would have seen my life just flash before your eyes.

Another thing I liked was Mailbird Pro's integration with various web apps. I was able to sign into Facebook from Mailbird Pro. I wonder, however, whether accessing Facebook from an e-mail client would make me more productive? It might, admittedly, be useful if there is browser blocking of Facebook on a PC. A more useful integration is with Degoo, which allows users to upload large files to their service, and share the link in your e-mail. For those who didn't see my last blog piece, Degoo is a European cloud storage provider that gives you 100GB for free. More than that, you got to pay. (I'm not sure if I'll even need 100GB, but some people might need multiples of that.)

Oh, and before I forget: Mailbird Pro allows you to use GMail keyboard shortcuts. J/K for next/previous. "#" for delete. "/" for search.

But I felt there were shortcomings in Mailbird Pro's offerings. Let me explain. I first attached Mailbird Pro to my Hotmail (Outlook.com) account, and it started working fine. So, being a normal human being, we tend to think: One is good, two is great. Right? So I attached my Yahoo email account, and again it was working fine. Then I attached my Google e-mail account, and it seemed fine as well. You could switch between a unified view (press Ctrl-1) or a view of the individual accounts (Ctrl-2, Ctrl-3, or Ctrl-4). You could search e-mails by sender, simply by hovering over the sender's name and clicking on the magnifying glass. I was happily searching for old e-mails and deleting them.... after ascertaining they were safe for deleting.

And after a few days of using it, I found that Mailbird Pro was continuously downloading e-mails to my computer. I had more than 20,000 unread e-mails in that unified inbox. It slowed my browser's browsing speed, never mind that my browser was touted on its website as fast and speedy and a pleasing browsing experience.

I also began to find that some e-mails were still on the server even after I had deleted them from my Mailbird Pro inbox. Now, that was frustrating. 

Another annoyance was that every time I searched for an "unsubscribe here" link in my inbox, the moment I clicked it, I launched it in Microsoft Edge, a browser that I hardly use, but it's the default browser in my PC.

Perhaps the worst thing for me was that Promotional and Social e-mails (from my GMail) also appeared in the Mailbird Pro unified inbox. Suddenly, I realised that thousands upon thousands of unread emails resided in my Promotions and Social meta-inboxes. 

I also began to realise that if I had exited Mailbird Pro, and then deleted a bunch of e-mails from my inbox through the browser, it would take some time for the deletions to be reflected in my desktop e-mail client.

And so I began going into my inboxes, without the desktop client.

Search for "Unsubscribe" and "Opt-Out"

Many newsletters and promotional e-mails allow us to unsubscribe and opt-out. The last thing they want is to be classified as spam. With "machine learning" on the rise, I believe that there is a function in the e-mail service providers that classifies certain senders as spammers after a number of e-mail users click that exclamation mark. "Hey GMail! This is spam." That's what they are saying to GMail (or whatever service you are using). Imagine that thousands of recipients do the same thing.... the e-mail marketer would be classified as a spammer, and future e-mails get sent to the spam box automatically. 

That would be a sad day for these online marketing dudes, who have been told that e-mail marketing is the next big thing. So to avoid it, they leave a link at the bottom of the email that says, "Unsubscribe here".

And you can easily find these e-mails by searching in your inbox for "unsubscribe" or "opt-out". 

But that only addresses what e-mails you have received. What about future e-mails? How can you choose what to do with them, automatically? That's when I found out about filters and rules.

Whoops.... don't let that spam filter turn away important e-mails.


E-Mail Filters and E-Mail Rules

Basically e-mail filters and e-mail rules are similar to each other. Both of them tell the e-mail service provider what to do with incoming e-mail, for example mark it as read, label it, put it into a certain folder, or even delete it. But GMail, Hotmail (Outlook.com) and Yahoo Mail have different types of rules.

Before we start comparing the strengths of each, perhaps it's good to inform you how to access these e-mail filters / rules.

GMail: Filters

How to access the filters in GMail? There are three places you can do that.

First, when you're looking at an individual e-mail, you'll notice the row of buttons at the top, one of which is "More". Click "More" and there will be a dropdown menu. Look for "Filter messages like these". Click it. You should see various options immediately, which are the "filter": 

  • From (usually will be filled with the e-mail address of the current e-mail sender)
  • To
  • Subject
  • Has the words 
  • Doesn't have
  • Has attachment
  • Don't include chats
  • Size greater/less than ......... MB
Right at the bottom, there is a link "Create filter with this search". So assuming that you filled in some of the options above, you'll be brought to the second page, which are the "actions":

  • Skip the inbox (archive it)
  • Mark as read
  • Star it
  • Apply the label ....
  • Forward it to (e-mail address)
  • Delete it
  • Never send it to Spam
  • Always mark it as important
  • Never mark it as important
  • Categorize as .....
And then there's that big blue button which says, "Create filter" with a little box on its right, which says, "Also apply to .... matching conversations"

Simple right? The "filter" is a set of conditions which allows you to define, what e-mails should be dealt with, and how. The "actions" can be combined to give you powerful options, such as simultaneously forwarding it to another inbox and deleting it from your GMail inbox (while marking it as read).

The second way to create a filter is from the inbox view or a search result view. If you're in the inbox (press "GI") then just select some e-mails with "x" and "More" button will show. Click on it, and you'll see "Filter messages like these". If however you have done a search, and you see the search results, there will also be a "More" button. Click on it and see "Create filter". The menu you'll be presented with it is the same from "Filter messages like this".

The third way to create a filter or edit your filters is to go to the settings page. On the upper right, just below your avatar, click on the cogwheel, which causes a dropdown menu to appear. Click on "Settings". At the settings page, you'll notice a tab, saying "Filters and blocked addresses". There, you can see how many filters there are. You can either edit or delete the filters.

I think that the "OR" operator is something that you should know in order to benefit the most from your filters. For example, if you want to filter e-mails from mom and dad, you can specify in the "From" filter, "mymom@yahoo.com OR mydad@gmail.com". Note, the word "OR" must be in capital letters. If I want to filter e-mails with the words "unsubscribe" or "opt-out", you should enter in the "Has the words" filter, "unsubscribe OR opt-out"

Some of the filter settings I use:
  • If the sender is "abc@hotmail.com OR xyz@yahoo.com", mark it as read, star it, apply a label, mark it as important, and categorize as personal.
  • If the recipient is "myemail@gmail.com" and the body has the words "unsubscribe", forward it to another email account, and delete it from my GMail.
There's something that you should know about applying filters to existing e-mail messages in GMail. Existing e-mail messages will not be forwarded. So applying "forward then delete" filters will only cause your e-mails to be deleted, but not forwarded. (There's a little note on this at the bottom of the page)

And that's it for GMail.

Hotmail / Outlook.com: Rules

In Outlook.com (Hotmail) there isn't any difference between the inbox view and the individual e-mail view. In the middle column, you'll see the list of inbox messages, while on the right pane there will be an individual e-mail -- usually, the e-mail message that you've highlighted in the middle.

In Outlook.com (Hotmail), the filters are called "rules". So, whichever message you're looking at, look for the three dots (that look like an ellipsis) at the top. Click it, and you'll see a dropdown menu. Select "Create rule".

So these are the options in the "filter", or what are known as "rules", which appear on the left side of the page:
  • Sender contains...
  • Recipient contains....
  • E-mail is older than .... (You can specify: 3, 10, 30, or 60 days)
  • E-mail is not the latest .... (You can specify: 1, 3, 5, or 10)
  • Subject contains....
  • Keyword contains ....
  • Category is .....
  • Category is not .....
  • Attachment (Either has or does not have)
The rules can be combined.

The actions allowed from the rules, on the right side of the page, are as follows:
  • Delete
  • Move to
  • Mark as junk
  • Archive
  • Mark as (You can specify read or unread)
  • Set flag state
  • Forward to
  • Categorize as
  • Remove category
At the bottom there is a link, called "Create rule".

To make any rule apply to existing e-mails, you'll have to use "E-mail is older than..." This means that you can apply the rule to e-mails from long ago, up to 3 days ago. As time goes on, new e-mails will fall within the rule, and they too will be processed.

To access your rules, and to change them, click on the cogwheel on the upper right, next to your avatar. A dropdown menu will appear, and you'll see "Manage rules" right on top of "Manage categories". Click on it (manage rules) and you'll see the list of rules on the page "Rules for sorting new messages".

In Outlook.com (Hotmail), the rules have hierarchical order. You can raise or lower the priority of a rule, by clicking on the up and down icons. If you click on any rule, you can edit it.

The benefit of using "If older than ...." is: You'll be able to receive newsletters and there will be a grace period to read them. If it's older than ...... days, then it gets deleted. So you can read at leisure, at your pleasure.

One of the good things about the "Attachment" rule: You can automatically put all e-mails with an attachment in a single folder, to be examined at leisure. Of course you can also do that by searching for "has:attachment", but think of the convenience!

And that's it for Hotmail (Outlook.com) rules. 

Yahoo! Mail: Filters

In Yahoo! Mail, you can make filters, not rules. But it comes to the same thing. You can make filters from the individual e-mail view, by clicking at the ellipsis and "More" at the top. Down will come a menu that says, among others, "Filter e-mails like this..."

However, Yahoo! Mail filters are rather bare compared to GMail's filters and Hotmail (Outlook.com) rules. 

First, you get to name your filter. That's not bad -- the other two have no such naming tendencies. Then, there are four conditions in the "filter" section:
  • From: contains / does not contain / starts with / ends with (choose one) ....
  • To: contains / does not contain / starts with / ends with (choose one) ....
  • Subject: contains / does not contain / starts with / ends with (choose one) ....
  • Body: contains / does not contain / starts with / ends with (choose one) ....

In the "action" section, there's only one thing:
  • Move the message to this folder: .....

No forwarding is possible, neither is there any option for auto-deletion. Admittedly, you can move an e-mail to "Trash", and that's quite similar.

But I really wish that the Yahoo! Mail filter was more robust than this. For a start, consider allowing forwarding of e-mails. Consider multi-action filters, not just moving e-mails to a selected folder. Consider allowing people to mark e-mails as read, so that our unread e-mails count don't keep going up. Hey Yahoo guys.... are you listening?


Concluding Thoughts

I've managed to put in quite a number of e-mail filters and rules in place. I hope that my inbox will remain clean and manageable in the long run. How that works out remains to be seen.

A minor update on my Mailbird Pro subscription: When I signed up for Mailbird Pro Lifetime, I had to sign up for a "priority support" subscription as well. I cancelled payment authorization to Mailbird Pro, because I didn't want to be billed for any subscription. I was under the impression that my licence was going to last forever, even if by "Lifetime", we really mean "for the balance of the existence of the company". (Yes, we fall for "lifetime" promises easily, because we're romantic like that and we believe in happily ever after.)

So Mailbird Pro e-mailed me and in so much of a huff and a puff, they asked me whether I would pay my subscription or cancel it. I cancelled it, because my understanding of a "Lifetime Pro" is that it's supposed to last for the rest of the company's existence. I don't need priority support, I can queue. But they've been quite persistent and sent an autoresponder to find out why I cancelled my subscription, which "ended on 22nd May 2016." That was simply ridiculous as I had signed up for Mailbird Pro less than a month ago. 

So, to summarize my concluding thoughts, Mailbird Pro looks great but it looks like there's a hidden yearly subscription. GMail's filters and Outlook (Hotmail) rules are both great in their own way. I actually prefer the keyboard shortcuts and the UI in GMail, but the Outlook rules are better. Yahoo Mail's filters still have a long way to go, and could be much improved. But Yahoo Mail has 1 TB of storage, if I'm not mistaken ... while GMail has a maximum of 15GB and Outlook.com has 5GB, for free users. 

Heck, we're stingy folks, but we appreciate a good offering when we see one. 

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