“Where’s the address book?”
That’s one of the most common question new Gmail users seem to ask. If a whole lot of people can’t even find their Gmail/Google Contacts, you’d better believe the system is not amazingly intuitive or easy to manage. (Throughout this article, I use Google Contacts and Gmail Contacts interchangeably, as they are indeed the same thing.)
Even if you do know that a Contacts area of your Gmail exists, there’s a good chance that it’s a disaster zone of unidentifiable email addresses and possibly even phone numbers, all grouped vaguely as Other Contacts.
My business Gmail account had more than a thousand entries in the Other Contacts group. I decided that was unacceptable, so I started to clean up my Gmail Contacts. I’ll share here what I did, what I learned, and a few alternative solutions I recommend using if you don’t want to mess around with messy Gmail Contacts.
That last option, using something else entirely, is actually what I recommend. Cleaning up Google Contacts requires a lot of manual work, especially if you have thousands of “other” contacts. There are so many great apps and services for managing contacts that work really well and hook right into your Gmail account if you’d prefer to go that route.
5 Facts About Gmail/Google Contacts
Gmail Contacts works differently than a lot of other contact managers, so knowing a few basic principles can help tremendously. Here are five facts that might shed some insight:
- How do you get to your Gmail address book? It’s hidden beneath the big Mail at the upper left of the interface. Click on Mail and you see a drop-down option for Contacts. Alternatively, log into Google and go to google.com/contacts.
- When you reply (including “reply all”) or forward an email, Google automatically adds anyone and everyone on the thread to your contacts list, unless you have turned off this feature. Additionally, if you use an Android device, your Google Contacts might also include listings for phone numbers you’ve called, depending on how your account is configured on the device.
- Google Contacts has a merge tool, but it doesn’t always work or look as you’d expect (more on that later).
- Google Contacts does pull classification information from both Gmail and Google+ (groups and circles, respectively), but they don’t sync, even though sometimes it seems like maybe they should.
- Now let’s get into some tips and how-tos for cleaning up Google Contacts.
Cleaning Up Google Contacts
Understand Contact Groups vs. Circles
Once you get inside Google Contacts (again, click the Mail logo in the upper left and select Contacts), the first place to put your attention is on the lists that appear in the left rail.
As you can see in my account, I have several primary sections: My Contacts, Circles, Most Contacted, and Other Contacts. My Contacts and Circles have sub-groups. The number in parentheses after the group name indicates how many people are in that group.
My Contacts are people from Gmail that I have added as contacts. Circles is information about people you know and follow on Google+ and has nothing to do with email. When you look at a listing of people from your Gmail Contacts (use the search bar, for example, to find everyone named Smith), you can also see whether those people are in any of your Google+ Circles, as that information appears to the far right of their names. So there is some overlap between Contact groups and Circles, but not much, even though people in your Circles fully appear in your Google Contacts.
Most Contacted are the top 20 people with whom you’ve exchanged the most email, even if you were silent on a thread. In other words, it’s not people you email the most necessarily, nor is it recent, as it looks at your entire history of email. Your ex from three years ago could still very well make it to your top 20.
That last Other group is everyone else from Gmail (and possibly your Android device, as I mentioned previously) that you have ever contacted.
Find and Merge
The best course of action, in my mind, is to start by finding duplicate contacts in your Other Contacts group (or across all of Google Contacts if you don’t have any sub-groups yet) and merging them.
Click on Other Contacts, then select More at the top of the page, and in the drop-down menu, choose Find & merge duplicates. A summary will appear that lets you review details of the potential merges before you accept the action. Be sure to check through this list for common names that might in fact be two different people.
Now, if that list is amazingly, overwhelmingly long, you need to cancel and redo the find/merge function on a smaller sub-group of your contacts. You can just select a different subgroup from that left rail, or you could do a search, such as a search by domain (e.g., search for all email addresses with pcmag.com). Either way, it will give you a more manageable slice of potential duplicates to review. Repeat as necessary.
Assign People to Groups, Add Details
Just below that entry for Other Contacts you can see New Group. If you want to classify your contacts into different groups, this is the next area of Google Contacts that should capture your attention.
To have someone in any group, you must also list them in My Contacts. That’s just the way it is.
To add people to groups, use the button with the icon of three heads on it. It’s pretty self-explanatory from there, but see Google’s Editing Contacts instructions for more detail.
I’m not sold on groups being truly valuable just yet, as I’ve only used them to a limited degree, but I could foresee some scenarios where they might be helpful. One group I made, for example, is Tech Company Executives. If I’m ever on deadline and desperate for a quote, it sure would help to know who in the tech industry I’ve connected with directly (as opposed to connecting via a PR firm) in the past.
If I had limitless time (who does?) I’d seriously beef up the “notes” section of individuals. Click on any individual in your contacts list, and you can add typical address book information, plus a photo and notes.
In my personal Gmail account, it would be helpful to add details for PR professionals, as their email addresses and even prior communications don’t always help me figure out if they represent a company or product that I need to investigate.
Turn Off the Auto-Add Function
If, after perusing your Other Contacts list, you realize it’s mostly junk (generic “help@” addresses and such), I’d recommend turning off the auto-add function.
Go to the gear icon in the upper right and choose Settings. Stay in the General tab, and scroll down to find “Create contacts for auto-complete” (it’s two below your profile picture).
Interested in Other Apps and Services?
Let’s say after reading this information, you decide to just not use Google Contacts. I can’t blame you. Here are some other places to keep your address book that let you automatically grab and add information from your Google Contacts.
LinkedIn and LinkedIn Contacts. The real problem I see with managing your own address book is that it’s hard to keep information up to date. I shouldn’t be responsible for updating your job title and email address when you change employers. That’s on you, buddy. And that’s why I love LinkedIn as an address book. It’s much easier to have updated information if all your contacts are responsible for the upkeep.
LinkedIn works pretty well for helping you find contacts and their basic information, but a special app called LinkedIn Contacts goes a little further along those lines. If you connect your LinkedIn account to Gmail, the online professional networking site will recommend “people you may know” based on the info it finds in Google. Some people really hate that, but it could be valuable, depending on how beefy your LinkedIn account is. On the flip side, you also have the option to export your LinkedIn contacts and then import them to Gmail.
iOS Contacts. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, you might want to sync your Google Contacts with your iOS device so that you can just use Apple’s Contacts app as your primary address book. The instructions are slightly different for Google Apps users.
EasilyDo and iOS. Another way to manage your iOS contacts is with the EasilyDo app and its new (paid) feature called Catch All Contacts. When you run Catch All Contacts, EasilyDo scours the last two years of your email for contact information from the body of messages, and saves it to your iOS Contacts app. While the EasilyDo app is free, this feature costs $39.99 (one time) per email account. Unfortunately, the feature is not available for Android users. Read more about Easily for iPhone and EasilyDo for Android in their respective reviews.
Cloze. Web app and mobile app Cloze unifies all your inboxes, as well as your social media feeds, and pulls some interesting information about your contacts, too. It’s not exactly a contact manager, but it does support good old Gmail. Cloze can identify people who are important to you (so you can boost their ego by liking their Facebook posts), as well as people with whom you are losing touch. Like I said, it’s not exactly a contact-management app, but it’s pretty neat for giving you insight into your contacts across Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Twitter, Facebook, and other online accounts.
For more tips about contact management, see Get Organized: 7 Ways to Automatically Organize Contacts. And when you’re ready to take on your Gmail inbox, check out 30 Gmail Tips That Will Help You Conquer Email.