GMail Rank and the Importance of Good Subject Lines

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Google is experimenting with including emails in your search results. Of course, the emails you see will be personal to you, and won’t be shared with others. The emails will only be the ones that you received via Gmail, and the service is opt-in only. The announcement was made on August 8th, in the Google Official Blog post, Building the search engine of the future, one baby step at a time

Chances are that the rankings used to decide which emails to show, and the order of those emails is probably very similar to the importance rankings used to display different colored markers on your emails in Gmail. One of the good things about those importance ranking markers is that if you want, you can search and filter your Gmail emails by them if you want, as well as using other advanced search filters. But we don’t know exactly if the search from Gmail provides the same kind of ranking and results as the search results you might see when GMails are integrated into Google Web search.

My mailbox sometimes gets more letters than it can really handle at any one time.

What was really interesting in regards to Google including Gmail in Web search was that Google was assigned the rights to a patent from MailRank, Inc. that describes a way of ranking emails from services like Gmail, Yahoo mail, and email from Microsoft. The assignment was executed on June 18, 2012, but wasn’t recorded at the patent office until August 15, 2012.

There is a company named Mailrank that announced a move of their engineers to Facebook on their homepage and Facebook page in November, and the move was reported in Mashable as well. The names listed as inventors on the patent are David Cowan, Ethan Kurzweil and James Cham. A look at their LinkedIn profiles shows them to be active as venture partners, and don’t include Mailrank, Inc. in their past employment histories, but they were at the company that registered the domain name. According to a bio of Ethan Kurzweil, Mailrank, Inc. was “an internal BVP incubation” and Kurzweil was on the board of directors for Mailrank.

The Mailrank patent moved to Google, and the employees of the company appears to have moved to Facebook.

The patent is:

Ranking messages in an electronic messaging environment
Invented by David Cowan, Ethan Kurzweil and James Cham
Assigned to MailRank, Inc.
US Patent 8,095,612
Granted January 10, 2012
Filed: September 18, 2009


The present invention provides methods and systems to score messages exchanged over a network. The methods and systems may gather message interactions of a recipient. A message originating from a sender and destined for the recipient may be received at an email client. A sender score of the message may be determined based on one or more of sender information, the gathered message interactions, and one or more attributes associated with the message. The message may be marked with the determined score in a user interface associated with the email client.

MailRank Technology in GMail?

So the big question I had when I saw that Google had acquired this patent is whether or not it was related to including Gmail in search results. We know about the importance rankings that GMail has that cause them to have different starred ratings.

Google introduced a Priority Inbox back in August of 2010, in the Official Google Enterprise Blog, with the post Email overload? Try Priority Inbox. We’re told in that post that:

Messages are automatically categorized as they arrive in your inbox. Gmail uses a variety of signals to predict which messages are important, including the people you email most and which messages you open and reply to (these are likely more important than the ones you skip over).

The new patent lays out a lot of signals that might be used to rank emails. Is it related to Google’s Priority Inbox? Many of the signals described in the description of Google’s importance rank sound similar to those in the Mailrank patent.

Here’s are the signals that Google revealed:

  • Who you email: If you email Bob a lot, it’s likely that messages from Bob are important.
  • Which messages you open: Messages you open are likely to be more important than those you skip over.
  • What keywords spark your interest: If you always read messages about soccer, a new message that contains those same soccer words is more likely to be important.
  • Which messages you reply to: If you always reply to messages from your mom, messages she sends are likely to be important.
  • Your recent use of stars, archive and delete: Messages you star are probably more important than messages you archive without opening.

Here are some of the signals found in the MailRank patent:

  • the recipient address (i.e., the recipient marked in the `To` field of the email),
  • the addresses of recipients who are copied in the email (i.e., the recipients marked in the `CC` field of the email),
  • the addresses of the recipients who have been marked in BCC,
  • number of recipients,
  • priority attached with the message,
  • time of sending/receiving the message,
  • content in the subject field of the message,
  • sender score (i.e., sender information),
  • sender’s ITM (Importance To Me),
  • subject ITM,
  • etc.

The sender’s score mentioned in the patent might be calculated looking at signals such as:

  • an open email rate,
  • a reply email rate,
  • a delete email rate,
  • rate of click-through of the hyperlinks received in an email,
  • rate of download of the graphics,
  • filing or archiving rate,
  • etc.

The passage I found really interesting in the patent was this one about subject lines in emails:

The ranking server may examine a message subject to distinguish potentially important messages from potentially less important messages. An example of such a distinction includes determining the importance of a first message with “There is a problem with your order” as the subject compared a second message with “Thank you for your order” as the subject.

In the example, the first message may be assigned a higher score than the second message because the second message may be of a more informational nature than the first message.

Implications of GMail Rankings

You may be a marketer, and hope that your email gets seen and opened by its recipient. Having your email be ranked highly so that it shows up in GMail search results could be helpful.

You might be a co-worker, and want to make sure that your email gets seen and responded to. A subject line like “Client Name – Important Problem with XXXX” might rank more highly than one with a subject line like “Quick Question.”

I did look through a good number of articles about best practices for emails, and found the following which I thought could be helpful.

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27 thoughts on “GMail Rank and the Importance of Good Subject Lines”

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  4. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m still not seeing any value in ranking my emails. I delete emails that are sales related in nature, and if one of my colleagues or friends has the answer I’m looking for, I already search my email anyway. Hoping this will be a test that doesn’t stick!

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  6. This feature provides further incentive for companies to nurture their email marketing efforts. If companies’ products or services should align with recipients’ search queries, this could spawn an additional route to gain customers. Perhaps, the overall quality and usefulness of email content will improve as well.

    As a recipient, if I searched for a service, and an email surfaced with information and/or a coupon that I had previously disregarded, I might be pleasantly surprised.

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  8. This is quite shocking. I would rather all my emails not be publicly displayed in this way. It makes one think if he should have an encrypted separate email for his actual personal correspondence.

    But I see the value as bill mentioned for marketers and businesses.

  9. This is way too ‘Big Brotherish’ for my taste. Google is spending too much of their time trying to re-engineer how people use tech and not enough time on improving their core service.

    I have no idea why people tolerate this just for ‘free email.’


  10. I like this email ranking. Allows me to find emails from more important people such as my bosses and my friends easier and the spam gets pushed away. The only downside is if there is something important from someone you rarely email, could get lost with the spam.

  11. that’s pretty shocking to see how the Google system is developed. I never realized the depth with which they can track all of our information! Thanks for the post.

  12. Not sure I understand the value (to me) of having my emails ranked and returned in search results? If the ultimate goal is to have some marketing spin on the effectiveness of specific email campaigns – maybe. I guess I would have to see it to believe it.

  13. The fact that this service is opt-in is a good thing. Personally, I don’t want (or need) my emails to show up while I’m searching the web, but I suppose it might come in handy for others to see related emails, for example marketing/business emails.

  14. Most of my email has a “file 13” ranking already anyway. We’ll see how this plays out, could cause some confusion with expected mail. just saying.

  15. With the new potential for a system to categorize/prioritize our e-mails it makes things possibly more convenient yet more hectic. I see this as both a favorable change but a challenge. It can cause some marketing situations especially when company’s choose heading towards a demographic audience and then must adapt to the new changes. This is something we always must stay up to date with.

  16. I must have fallen off the turnip truck because I fail to see the benefit of this. If I am the only one who can see the emails that are important to me, what’s the point? I already know what email content and users I give the most credence to without Google trying to tell me.

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  18. For some reason, I just don’t see any benefit from having personal GMail results injected into search results.

    I mean, really, what’s the point? I read my emails…I don’t want them cluttering up search results.

    Google Fail…


  19. I’m extremely glad this is opt-in only. Google seems to be pushing too many of their services on the serps page, even if it’s personalized. Google+, Youtube, and now Gmail as an option? Done right, this would be a great benefit to power users of Gmail, but it does make me wonder where does G draw the line for inclusion of their services within the SERPS.

  20. I agree with you, GMail search will be of more use to marketers by placing there email on top.Having my email ranked highly in GMail search results could be helpful
    The more a marketers emails gets seen and opened by its recipient the more customers he/she gets. Thanks for the post.

  21. I agree with many of you, this is a little too close to home for my tastes. That was an issue a lot of my colleagues had with Google+ from the start – they like social and more personal things like email in separate buckets.

    Of course, as Google starts looking at all of these new social scoring mechanisms, they need as much data as they can get. This needs to be optional forever, because I know very few people on the receiving end of email who would enjoy this feature.

  22. This seems like a weird move, kind-of big brothery… Of course, I guess that makes sense being Google and all. Could be helpful though if used properly though.

  23. Doesn’t Google already have something like this with the priority inbox feature? You know, those little yellow arrows that show up next to emails from people you most frequently correspond with. It’s an optional feature that has to be enabled from the settings menu. I’m pretty sure this feature is what the MailRank patent is referring to.

  24. I think the priority inbox is nice, but it does seem a bit scary to know that google searches my email – will be interesting to see how facebook implements something similar.

  25. Really, anything that improves search relevance is good. But I wonder how necessary it is? Searching Gmail is already pretty easy. Simple refinements to that process might be better. I just don’t put email search and regular web search in the same category–in other words, what I’m looking for online usually can’t be found in my email in box. I either dismiss and delete the offer or service or act on it. As far as general information — well, I don’t go to my email for general information, I go the web. IDK. Seems like a good idea in need of an audience. A nice to have, not a need to have.

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