Google has moved on from bringing the Gmail world free Voice over Internet Protocol calling to tackling another challenge: E-mail overload. Google is moving to de-clutter the Gmail inbox with a new system that prioritizes e-mail.

Google empathizes with people who are overwhelmed by jammed inboxes. Google software engineer Doug Aberdeen said his inbox is slammed with messages from colleagues, from lists, about appointments, and automated mail that's often not important.

Google's Priority Inbox works to figure out what needs to be read and what needs a reply. Aberdeen calls the beta tool an "experimental new way of taking on information Relevant Products/Services overload in Gmail."

Predicting Priority Messages

"Gmail has always been pretty good at filtering junk mail into the 'spam' folder. But today, in addition to spam, people get a lot of mail that isn't outright junk but isn't very important -- bologna, or 'bacn'," Aberdeen wrote in the Official Google Blog. "So we've evolved Gmail's filter to address this problem and extended it to not only classify outright spam, but also to help users separate this 'bologna' from the important stuff. In a way, Priority Inbox is like your personal assistant, helping you focus on the messages that matter without requiring you to set up complex rules."

Here's how it works: Gmail automatically flags some incoming messages as important, using a variety of signals, including the people you e-mail most. For example, if Gmail users e-mail Bob a lot, the system figures the message from Bob is probably important. Gmail also works to predict priority messages based on which messages you open and reply to, figuring those messages are likely more important than the ones you skip over.

"As you use Gmail, it will get better at categorizing messages for you. You can help it get better by clicking the buttons at the top of the inbox to correctly mark a conversation as important or not important," Aberdeen said. "You can even set up filters to always mark certain things important or unimportant, or rearrange and customize the three inbox sections."

A Reverse Spam Filter

Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, has already tested the system. In his brief time using it, he said, Priority Inbox has proven to be helpful in organizing and sorting e-mail. As he describes the system, it acts as a kind of reverse spam filter, surfacing important e-mails and contacts and pushing down others.

"Google uses an algorithm to accomplish this, which learns over time, but it can be tuned and overridden manually, too," Sterling said. "The traditional view of Gmail is also preserved side by side with the new priority inbox, which is nice. Furthermore, people don't have to use it at all if they don't want to."

Aberdeen said Priority Inbox will be rolling out to all Gmail users, including users of Google Apps, over the next week or so.