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Using Gmail as a Universal E-mail Archive

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Three years from now, you might be required to provide documentation contained in an e-mail message you received at your old work e-mail address. How can you get the message back if you no longer work for the company? Believe it or not, you can create a robust and lightning-fast digital archive of all your e-mail from all your accounts for free. Although it sounds too good to be true, it isn't. Timothy Warner shows you how to use Gmail to set up a universal e-mail archive.
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I never delete my e-mail—ever. To be honest, I even archive spam messages. To be sure, you might think me a hoarder. Perhaps as regards to e-mail communications, I suppose I'm guilty as charged.

Here's the deal, friends: E-mail represents a potentially critically important electronic paper trail, and I want to make sure I can reconstruct that trail if necessary.

Several years ago, I was called in as a consultant on a legal proceeding that hinged upon a document that was originally transmitted via one single e-mail message. The problem was that nobody seemed to have a copy of that message. Between people running into mailbox quota limits and nuking entire lists of messages, to sloppy backup and archiving on the part of corporate IT e-mail administrators, the case looked at first to be a lost cause.

That is, until the defendant plucked a copy of the wanted message out of her Gmail archive. Bingo! She won that case, by the way.

Look, unless you're dealing with lots of messages carrying huge attachments, ordinary e-mail messages are negligible in size. Then consider that cloud service/hosting companies such as Google give their customers 15 GB of mailbox storage for free. And that storage quota is per Google ID—you can easily create multiple Google IDs to spawn pristine new Gmail mailboxes. For this reason among many, cloud computing is the bomb!

So How Does it Work?

Perhaps I piqued your interest. "Sure," you say, "Archiving all of my work and personal e-mail messages to the cloud does indeed sound like a wise and prudent thing to do. But what's involved? I can barely open my e-mail program, for Pete's sake!"

Take a look at Figure 1; I'll describe my workflow for archiving all my e-mail:

  • I configure my work and home e-mail accounts to forward all incoming and outgoing messages (you'll learn how to do that in just a moment).
  • I set up an archive e-mail account. I like Google's Gmail because it's a flexible system and it gives you 15 GB of storage right away. However, you can use any e-mail account as your archive.

Figure 1 A schematic representation of how my Gmail universal mail archive system works

The process of setting up an e-mail archiving system isn't necessarily complex and/or difficult. Instead, you should simply keep the following caveats in mind when you start out:

  • Your company may have a policy against your copying internal e-mail communications to an external data store. In this case, do not configure these messages for archiving.
  • Message rules, especially in a business environment, sometimes run only on the mail server, so setting up the rules in your client e-mail program doesn't make a difference. In this case, talk to your IT people and see what you can work out.

To create a free Gmail account, simply visit the Google Accounts page and fill in the fields. There is no credit card required!

Archiving Your Outgoing Mail

The specific instructions for configuring your work and home e-mail programs to forward outgoing mail are, of course, application-specific. The most general guideline I have to suggest is the following:

Get into the habit of Bcc'ing your archive address on all outbound e-mail.

Bcc stands for "blind carbon copy" and means that any recipients you included in a message's To: or Cc: fields will not know that you also sent a copy of the message to a Bcc recipient.

Most e-mail programs require you to manually enable the Bcc field. In Microsoft Outlook 2013, for example, you need to navigate to the Options ribbon tab and click Bcc in the Show Fields category to expose the Bcc field in your messages.

Figure 2 You should develop the habit of Bcc'ing a copy of your outbound mail to your e-mail archive address

Here are some tips for making the Bcc thing easier to use on a daily basis:

  • Check the documentation for your e-mail program. It may have a way to automatically add Bcc recipients to all your outgoing mail.
  • Create a short, easy-to-type alias for your archive mail account and store it in your Contacts system. For instance, you can store the address myarchivemail@gmail.com as "arc." When you type arc in the Bcc field, it automatically expands to the correct address.
  • If you have any skill in programming and/or hacking, you may be able to create a macro script to automatically Bcc or otherwise forward your outbound e-mail.

Archiving Your Incoming Mail

To capture your inbound e-mail, you'll need to configure what is called an e-mail message filter or e-mail rule. Again, the discrete steps for accomplishing this goal are software-dependent.

In Microsoft Outlook 2013, for instance, you'll want to click Rules > Create Rule from the Home Ribbon tab. Next, you'll need to step through the Create Rule dialog box; I show you the interface in Figure 3. Alternatively, you can consult the Microsoft Web site for a step-by-step tutorial.

Figure 3 The message rule capability in Microsoft Outlook is powerful, but it isn't the easiest system to use

In plain English, the rule that I typically create for myself in Outlook does the following:

For any message that arrives with my name in the To: or Cc: box, forward a copy to my e-mail archive address.

In my experience, it's typically easier to create inbound message filters for Web browser-based e-mail clients. For example, I use Comcast (also known as Xfinity) for my home e-mail. Once I log in to my Webmail console, I can click Preferences > Email > Email Filters to set up an inbound message filter, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 Your Internet e-mail provider should have options to configure e-mail-forwarding rules

As you can see in Figure 4, I can click Add Filter to define inbound message rules. Again, I can specify that all mail addressed to me in the To: and Cc: fields be forwarded to my archive e-mail address. Easy as pie.

What I like about Comcast...er...Xfinity Webmail is that you can configure inbound-message forwarding without creating an explicit rule. Look at Figure 5: I can switch the toggle switch for E-mail Forwarding to On, provide my archive e-mail address, and I'm finished.

Figure 5 Some Webmail providers allow for easy, one-click message forwarding

Searching the Corpus

Once you have all of your work and home inbound and outbound e-mail getting copied to your Gmail archive address, what do you do next? Well, another reason why I love Gmail is because we can take advantage of Google's superior search capabilities.

Let's say you need to find a message containing a receipt from a past purchase. No problem—simply log in to your Gmail archive account, type your search query in the box, and off you go.

Look at Figure 6: Gmail makes it easy to organize messages in your archive system by using tags and labels. Select a representative message that you want to categorize and open the More menu. Next, choose Filter Messages Like These from the menu. You can then perform a bunch of classification actions on the filtered mail, including the following:

  • Star: The star designation makes it easy to flag messages for follow up; simply remove the star when you finish processing the message.
  • Label: You don't need to create "folders" in Gmail—instead, use labels to classify your messages. The label system functions the same way as folders do, but are much more flexible.
  • Category: Labels are cool, but they require you to think up their names. Instead, you can attach predefined categorizations to a message, including Personal and Social.

Figure 6 This composite image shows how we can easily categorize our archived messages in Gmail for easy retrieval

Troubleshooting Your E-mail Archival System

The best advice I have for you in terms of keeping your e-mail archival system functioning properly is to take action to avoid infinite loops. An infinite loop can happen if you configure one e-mail account to forward mail to a second e-mail account and then specify that the second e-mail account forward mail to the first.

Believe me, this can happen more easily than you think, given how easy it is to create these free online e-mail accounts from providers such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo (among others).

Second, although Google gives you plenty of space in your free tier mailbox, you may periodically want to search your archive for large attachments and purge them to save space. Don't worry about spam messages; they are negligible in size. The "heavy" file attachments are the ones you should draw your attention to.

For example, to search Gmail for all messages that contain attachments of 1 MB or larger, log in to your Gmail account and run the following search:

has:attachment larger:1m

Now you can parse the messages and optionally delete any that you don't want in your archive.

Finally, if you do decide that you want to go one step beyond the Gmail built-in junk mail filter to separate spam from ham (did you know that ham is actually the correct term? Monty Python reference, there), Lifehacker wrote an excellent article titled "When Gmail's Filters Aren't Enough: How to Tackle Spam on Your Own" that provides expert guidance.

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