Rich Format Signatures

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At long last, Gmail has provided a simple way to include different fonts, images, links and more to your signature. Previously this was done using Google Docs and some other tricks. Now you can simply go to Settings, scroll down to the Signature section, and format your signature just like your message with the WYSIWYG, or What You See is What You Get, editor.

Another nice feature is that you can now use a different signature for each account, if you have multiple accounts feeding in to a single Gmail account. Me? I have about 11 at this point. Some share a common theme, but I prefer others to be specialized, including a unique title, link, phone number, or tag line associated with my organizational presence. My signature for chuck.tomasi@gmail.com is different than my gpodcast@gmail.com address because they generally serve different purposes and audiences, yet thanks to Gmail, they end up on the same central point for me to read and manage. Even better, when I switch accounts while composing or replying to a  message, Gmail automatically switches the signature accordingly. Now how cool is that?

Here’s a quick reminder on email signature etiquette. Unless you have a compelling reason, try to keep your signatures to 4-6 lines of text. Typical signature elements include your name, phone number, email address, website, title (if you’re affiliated with an organization), if it’s personal email, perhaps a favorite or thought provoking one-line quote. Too many times I’ve seen signatures that are longer than the messages they convey. Gmail also allows you to add images to your signature. While this seems like a good idea at first, I occasionally see an email client that includes the image as an attachment rather than in the signature where you expect it. Also remember, Gmail doesn’t display images in messages unless you are in the recipients contacts list, sent that person a few email already, or have previously agreed to always accept images from that person. In which case, the effectiveness of the image is somewhat diminished.

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Managing Contacts

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Whether you are just getting started using Gmail or have been using it for years, this cast will help you manage your contacts.

If you are new to Gmail, you are likely typing in the email address of the person when you send them email. For example, chuck@chucktomasi.com. A more effective way is to use the Gmail contacts list. Once information is in there, you can simply start typing the name of the person and Gmail will find the contact and use the proper email address.

Begin by clicking the link on the left that says Contacts. You’ll see three columns in the main window. The left column lists group names. You can organize your contacts in to groups such as friends, work, rocket club, and so on. Gmail provides a few examples to help get you started, but you can configure these any way you like. I cover groups more in another podcast.

The second column lists the individual people in your contacts list. You may see some names listed here already even if you haven’t used Gmail much. (You see) Gmail learns these by analyzing the email you’ve previously sent. To add a new contact, click the icon in the upper right with a plus and a single head. At a minimum, provide a name and email address and click save. Note the email field is red until Gmail determines you have entered a valid email address consisting of an “@” sign and a domain such as .com, .org, and so on. If this person has more than one address, click the little blue “add” link to the right of the Email label to enter more addresses for this person. You can also add phone numbers (handy for using Google Voice), addresses (useful for Google maps), and even a photo of the person.

If you need to update someone’s contact information, just highlight their name from the middle column and click the Edit button above the details column on the right to update existing information or add any new data.

Deleting a contact is also quite easy; just click on the name or check the checkbox next to that entry and use the Delete contact button in the upper right of the contact details. Checking more than one contact allows you to delete multiples at the same time.

The contacts database is also useful if you are trying to find a conversation you had with someone. Often times I want to verify someone sent me something or I sent something out. I can’t always remember keywords or dates to search on, but I do remember who the conversation was with. To find that mystery conversation, simply click on the person’s name, and just below their details in the right column, there is a link reading “Recent conversations: Show”. Clicking on the show link does a search for any messages to or from that person.

As your contacts list starts to grow, you can also use the Search contacts field above the three columns to help locate names and addresses more quickly.

Over time, you may also find that Gmail has collected multiple email addresses or entries for the same person. For more information about merging contacts, I recommend listening to the Dec 2009 podcast on merging duplicate contacts. I also have information how to import your contacts from another mail service such as Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, and other systems from June 2009.

Listen for upcoming podcasts on managing groups, importing from a CSV file or spreadsheet, and synchronizing contacts between Gmail and other services like Outlook or your iPhone.

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iPad

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A few weeks ago I got an iPad. Like many people, at first I thought it was just an oversized iPod Touch, until a friend of mine let me use his.

One of the first things I wanted to see was Gmail. The difference between Gmail on the iPhone or iPod Touch compared to the iPad, using Safari, is massive. Some of the things I love about Gmail on the iPad include:

Seeing the index and the current conversation on the same screen. This is similar to how Mac Mail or Outlook display messages and the index. There’s enough screen real estate to get away with this on the iPad – not so on the iPhone or iPod Touch.

I also like the new larger area to compose a message. This was introduced on June 25 and is currently only available in the US English interface for the time being. When you reply or compose a new message, Gmail brings a popup window in front to compose your message unlike before when it was in the right side window with the rest of the conversation. When you’re done composing, use the Save or Send buttons in the lower right to complete your work.

Of course, I like using my iPad in landscape mode and using a full size on-screen keyboard to quickly touch type my way through the interface.

One thing that took a bit of getting used to was tagging conversations then using the Archive and Delete buttons on the left instead of the right. When you start checking off messages from the index on the left, it’s very easy to click “Archive” or “Delete” on the upper right. However, doing so will take action on the current message, not the ones you checked. If you look closely, as soon as you start checking those checkboxes, a new set of buttons appears in the lower left. THOSE are the ones used for the checked items. I know – it took me a while to get trained on those also. Just remember, checking on the left, buttons on the left. Reading on the right, buttons on the right.

I also think improvements can be made to the way labels are used. When you select the label feature from the dropdown list, you are presented with an alphabetized list of all your labels. If you have more than 20 or so labels and want to use one near the end you have to finger swipe to scroll your way down, click on it, then finger swipe back up to apply it – rather clumsy in my opinion. Predictive text like when entering names, and the labels from the desktop interface, would be much nicer.

Overall, I think Gmail did a great job at adapting their interface to take advantage of the new Apple tablet format and there’s room for improvement. I give it an 8 out of 10.

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Canned Responses and Maps Previews

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Canned responses are a handy way to save time if you have the same message content in a new message, or a reply to someone else. One use might be if you have a routine report to send out each week. You can use a canned response to fill in the content with something like “Hey team, here’s this week’s report. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for all the hard work.”

Before you create a canned response, you first need to enable the Canned Reponse labs feature. Begin by clicking the Settings link in the upper right corner of the screen then clicking on the Labs tab. Scroll down until you see the labs feature “Canned Responses”. Click Enable to the right of the description, then scroll to the bottom of the screen and click Save Changes.

To create a new canned response, click Compose Mail on the left to create a new message. Type in the subject and body text of your message. Just under the Subject text box, you will see a link labeled “Canned Responses”. The first time you click it, the only option will be to Save a new canned response. Click on the option “New canned response” and a pop up window appears and prompts you for a friendly name. In my example, I’ll use “Weekly Reports” as the name and click “OK”. You’ve just created your first canned response. To use it in the future on a new message or reply, just click the Canned Response link and choose Insert> Weekly Reports. You can create new canned responses at any time by composing a message, then saving that message as a canned response.

Two bits of information worth sharing, first the canned response only takes the message body as the canned response. The subject, recipients, and other fields are not part of the canned response. It also takes the entire message in the message body window. If you have a signature line in the canned response and you have signatures automatically inserted, you will see two signatures. If your canned response is not exactly as you wish, you can insert it, make the necessary changes, then click the link again and choose Save> Weekly Reports, for example, to update that particular canned response. If you no longer need a canned response, click the Canned Response link and choose the appropriate name under the Delete grouping.

Canned responses are a quick and easy way to save time if you are sending a routine message in Gmail.

Quick Tip: Enable the Google Maps Previews in mail labs feature to have Gmail automatically display a map when someone includes an address in an email. This saves you time for copying the address from a mail message, opening another window then pasting the address in to Google maps. Additionally, if you post a Google maps link in to a Buzz message, Buzz will automatically include a preview image. If you like photo, docs, and other previews, then you’ll want to be sure to add the maps preview labs feature to your collection. Just click on the settings link in the upper right corner, choose the labs tab, and scroll down until you see the labs feature “Google Maps Previews in Mail”. Click Enable, scroll to the bottom, click Save Changes and you’ll get a maps preview when someone sends you a street address.

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Contextual Apps and Calendar Update

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This past week Microsoft announced several additions to Hotmail in order to better compete with Gmail. Â No, I am not changing this from the Gmail Podcast to the Hotmail Podcast. We Gmail users snickered because many of these features like conversation view, and one-click filtering have been in Gmail for years . Within hours of the Microsoft announcement, Gmail upped the ante by announcing an API, or application programming interface, to allow developers to create contextual gadgets.
Contextual gadgets allow you to interact with traditional non-email data without leaving your mail application. You may already be using contextual gadgets and not even realize it. Examples include YouTube, photo, and document previews. Watching a video within email is not something email was originally designed to do so Google thought it would be a great idea to look for YouTube (and similar links) and provide the information right in the message so you don’t have to click and switch to another browser window or application, then come back to manage your email.
Now these features is available to developers outside the Google Domain to extend the functionality of Gmail. Several already exist such as AwayFind that allows you to mark certain contacts or messages as urgent and flag the recipient can be alerted via phone, SMS, or IM. Contextual apps are available for those who host their domain with Google. For example, I can add AwayFind as an available feature to those with chuckchat.com email addresses because the chuckchat.com mail is hosted on Google.
The only information I could find at this time regarding the installation and activation of these apps was an article on CNet.com that Google Apps Administrators can install the contextual gadgets for their users.
When I logged in and went to Manage my chuckchat.com domain, a button appeared on the Dashboard near the top just below the menu bar that said “Continue with setup guide”. When I clicked on it, I was brought to the Google Apps Admin Help screen that has a link at the top to the Google Apps Marketplace. If you want to just look around, use google.com/enterprise/marketplace.
I went ahead and installed and configured AwayFind so I can be alerted via SMS to my Google Voice number when important messages come to a specific domain. It only took a few minutes and is nice to have for certain cases. I can manage the contextual app from the main control panel of the dashboard.
While doing research for this article I noticed that labs are now available in Gmail for hosted domains while themes are not yet an option.
One final thing, Google Calendar got a minor update this past week for the first time in a while. The changes may appear subtle at first. They include some tweaks to the fonts and colors to make them a bit sharper. If you use tasks in Gmail and Calendar, take note that the Tasks link in Calendar has been removed and replaced with a listing under My Calendars. When you turn this pseudo calendar on, the tasks will appear on the right hand side. Managing the tasks in Google Calendar is the same as in Gmail. See the Gmail Podcast archives for more information on tasks.
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Drag and Drop Images

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This is probably one of the shortest Gmail Podcasts to let you know that the drag and drop feature that was announced for file attachments in April 2010 is now also available for images in the body of your message.
To use it, start composing a new message. Then simply use your mouse to click on a JPEG, GIF, or PNG file and drop it on the body of your message. Once the image is uploaded, several links appear under the image that let you size it to small, medium, large, or original. That’s it.
Currently this feature is only available for Chrome. However, combined with the drag and drop file attachments, I’m starting to use Chrome as my primary web browser over Firefox. Although, I’m sure the feature race between these two browsers isn’t over yet. Keep listening to the Gmail Podcast and watching the blog for updated information.
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Protect Yourself

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It’s time to take a look at maintaining your Gmail security. It’s no secret that the Internet can be a dangerous place. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an IT security geek to protect your Gmail account. With a few simple, common sense steps, and a little familiarity of some key Gmail features, you can protect yourself from people trying to gain access to your account.

You know the story. You get an email from a friend of yours who is reported to be stranded overseas and needs a couple hundred dollars to get home. This is one of the common messages and, of course, completely false. Your friend’s email account has been compromised, he’s got no idea until it’s too late, and your name happened to be in the address book along with who knows how many others who got a similar message. Remember, they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t work at least some of the time.

How do you prevent yourself from the same fate as your friend? (Not the ‘getting stuck overseas part’). The first step is understanding how your account could be breached. One way is forgetting logout on a public computer (a hotel kiosk for example.) Another way would be if someone had installed keylogging software on the computer you used. While undetectable to you, there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk.

First, select a strong password. Use a combination of letters, numbers, and throw in a symbol here or there. Use uppercase and lower case letters. Don’t use dictionary words or common names. Make it meaningful to you. For example: iat#1gmn! would be short for (I am the number 1 Gmail ninja). Also, change your password periodically. Yes, I know this is a pain, but when you think about it, even if someone has captured your password from a keylogger, it won’t be any good once you change your password. You can change your password under Settings> Accounts and Import> Change Account Settings or go to http://www.google.com/accounts

Second, remember to sign out when you’re done. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget.

Third, monitor any open sessions and understand what they mean. At the bottom of the main conversation index, there’s a line that says “Last account activity” and a link at the end to display the details. If you, or someone else, is logged on from another computer, it will tell you there. I often see one or two other computers logged in because I forget to logout on my home computer then access Gmail from work. By clicking on the Details link Gmail displays the location and IP addresses of the other sessions, a button to terminate the other sessions immediately, and a history of recent activity. It’s a good idea to become familiar with your home and work IP addresses so you can spot others that you don’t recognize. Remember to periodically scroll to the bottom of the screen and see how many other seessions are going. If it’s one or more, have a look at the details to be safe.

Finally, Gmail has created a feature that removes some of the burden of monitoring your activity. If Google sees activity on your account from two different countries within a few hours, you will see a warning message at the top of the screen in red which starts out “Warning, We believe your account was last accessed from…” You can turn this setting off from the same Activity history details mentioned earlier, but I don’t recommend it. Hopefully you’ll never see this message. While it’s nice to know Gmail is helping with some of the security, it doesn’t relieve you from doing some of the measures mentioned earlier.

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Address Suffixes

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Here’s a tip how to track if your email address is being circulated and stay organized using Gmail.

This past week I was out having dinner on a business trip. The hostess approached the table and asked if we would like to be emailed promotional information for their establishment. Since the restaurant chain and a place nearby where I live, I agreed; all they needed was my email address.

I don’t know about you, but every time I give out my email address, I get uneasy about the trust that the company I give it to won’t be selling it to someone else. While I can’t solve the trust issue, I can determine if they give the address away.

Here’s what I did. I added a “+” and a keyword to the first part of my address. For example, john.doe+joesdeli@gmail.com if I went dining at Joe’s Deli. Now I can filter on any email that has a “+” in the to address and star it, label it, or flag it someway to determine where it came from. Listen to some of the earlier Gmail Podcast episodes for information on filtering and labeling to determine how to automatically assist in visual identification of these messages. With luck, I will only see messages with the “+joesdeli” suffix from Joe’s Deli. If I start to see that address appear somewhere else, I will be less trustful of Joe in the future.

One word of caution, you may not be able to use this trick on web forms. Many websites don’t allow the “+” symbol in an email address. They think it’s an invalid character, so you may not be able to use this trick everywhere. Since I wrote it on paper at Joe’s Deli, I’ll let that be their problem since my email address has a higher value to them than me getting their promotional mail at this point.

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Insert Invitation and Drag & Drop Attachments

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Adding extra content to a Gmail message just took another giant leap forward this past week with the introduction of two features. The first is Insert Invitation. This feature allows you to stay within Gmail to create a quick appointment and see what is on the other person’s Google calendar if they have it shared with you. This is much easier than the old “Add Appointment” link.

Begin by composing a message and enter the recipients of your message. In my case, I’ll enter my wife’s email address which happens to be a hosted Gmail account and not a gmail.com address. She agreed to share her calendar with me a while ago, but if she wasn’t already setup for that, I would Click the calendar link at the top of Gmail, go to the Other Calendars section on the left, click the link “Add” in the lower right corner of that box and choose “Add friend’s calendar”, and enter her email address to send a request to share the calendar. She has the option of how much information and the amount of control I have, if any, on her calendar. Once she has shared her calendar, it will show up on the left in that Other Calendars section and her appointments will appear in the corresponding color. If you get too many other calendars you can simply click on the name of the calendar and it will turn them off .

With the calendar displayed, let’s got back to Gmail’s Insert Invitation feature. With one or more recipients entered in the address field, I click the Insert Invitation link just below the Subject field and a window pops up with the subject filled in as the “What”. I pick the dates and times for the “When”, and just below that, Gmail displays the availability of all the email recipients who have shared their calendars with me. This makes it much easier to see conflicts and reschedule. While I don’t have too many calendars shared with my friends (yet), I suspect this will be a bigger benefit to companies and other organizations trying to schedule meetings.

The other neat new feature doesn’t need much explanation. It’s a simple feature we’ve all come to expect from graphical computing over the last 25 years to drag items from one window to another. In some rare cases, even web applications allow you to drag files from your local file system to a web application. Gmail offers the ability to attach files simply by dragging them from your desktop, or any other folder to the link that reads Attach a file. This feature currently only supported in FireFox 3.6 and Chrome, but Google promises to support drag and drop attachments in other browsers soon.

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Nested Labels and Message Sneak Peak

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For years, Gmail has been touting that labels are more flexible and powerful than folders for organizing your messages. This is because any given message can only be filed in one folder at a time, but in Gmail, you can apply more than one label. The complaint I’ve heard most frequently is that labels lack the ability to be nested like folders. Good news all you organized people – Gmail now has a labs feature called Nested Labels.

You enable nested labels like any other labs feature by first clicking the Settings link in the upper right corner, click the Labs tab, scroll down until you find Nested Labels, click Enable next to it, scroll to the bottom and click Save Changes.

To create a nested label, you first need to create the top level label first if it doesn’t already exist. For my example, I’ll create a label called “Podcast”. Again, I go to Settings, then click the Labels tab, and scroll down to the labels section. I’ll type the label “Podcast” in the text box that reads “Create a new label”, then click the Create button. To create a sub-label, I use the name of the existing label, a forward slash, then the name of the sub-label. For this case, I type Podcast/Gmail, then click Create. Your nested label will immediately show up on the left. Like normal labels, you can add colors as you like. You can nest labels as many levels deep as you like. One warning, you cannot create the a new label and a sub-label at the same time. If you try to create a new label “Podcast/Technorama” before creating the Podcast label, you’ll end up with a top level label called Podcast/Technorama rather than a Podcast label with a Technorama label under it.


If you setup nested labels then turn the labs feature off, it’s nice to know that you don’t lose any information on the conversations you labeled. The label structure is represented literally as you typed it when you created the nested labels. For example the Gmail label under Podcasts, is displayed on the left as Podcast/Gmail. Right below it is Podcast/Technorama..

Another new labs feature is called Message Sneak Peak. When you enable this labs feature you can right click on any conversation on the index to see a preview of the conversation without leaving the conversation index. If the conversation has more than one message in it, you can use the arrow keys in the upper right corner to scroll through the various messages. If you have shortcut keys enabled, you can use the ‘h’ key to bring up the sneak peek window also. Use ‘j’ and ‘k’ to move to the next and previous message and Esc to put the sneak peek window away.

Update: 12-April-2010 – I am REALLY enjoying using nested labels (despite my better judgement to keep things flat). While I had to tweak some filters to apply the new labels, migrating conversations from an old label to a new label is SO simple. Just click the label on the left, click All to select all the messages (if there are more than fit on a single page of display, use the link to select all of them.) Use the “Move To” feature to apply the new label and remove the old one. When I got that done, I went to Settings> Labels to remove any unwanted labels (where it displays 0 Conversations.) Very cool.

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