(co-authored by Brian Croxall and Amy Cavender)

It’s not an understatement to say that Google, its products, and its actions are a constant subject of interest to people across the world. There is no exception to this point in higher education; just look at recent episodes of the Digital Campus podcast (a ProfHacker-recommended listen if there ever was one). Recently the buzz around Google in academia and elsewhere has been focused on Google Wave. According to one of its principal developers, Lars Rasmussen, Wave was developed in response to the question, “What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?”

We at ProfHacker plan to give you our own take on Wave in the near future, but it’s worth noting that while that system might be designed to replace email, email is still one of the primary tools we use as academics. And for many of us, you can’t really beat Google’s version: Gmail. While there’s a lot that one could say about Gmail, in this week’s installment of All Things Google, we wanted to begin by covering how you can use Gmail in conjunction with your other email addresses.

Getting email into Gmail

Why would you want all your other email accounts to come to your GMail inbox? If you use your accounts for different purposes that you like to keep distinct from one another, collecting everything in your GMail account may not be for you. But if for whatever reason you find yourself with multiple email accounts, and you don’t want to have to remember to check each one individually, your GMail account is a sensible place to collect them all.

There are two easy ways to get messages from your other email accounts to your GMail inbox:

  • Mail forwarding. Perhaps the simplest way to get messages to your GMail inbox is to have them forwarded from your other account. Most email providers allow users to have their email automatically forwarded to another address. You’ll want to follow the instructions for your specific provider. If you’re making use of mail forwarding in part to save space on a college or university server, look for (and be sure to enable) an option to automatically delete messages from the account once they’re forwarded.
  • Mail Fetcher. As long as the account you want to read in GMail supports POP access, you can use Mail Fetcher to do the job. Mail Fetcher essentially lets GMail check your other account for you, so you don’t have to remember to do it. The only restriction is that Mail Fetcher can handle a maximum of five accounts.

N.B. Depending on your university’s (and possibly local/state government’s) policies, you might be barred from using Gmail to receive all of your email. Be sure you are aware of what you can and cannot do with your email.

Sending email from other addresses within Gmail

“Great,” you may be saying. “I can see some advantages to collecting my other accounts in my GMail inbox. The problem is, sometimes I need to send mail from those accounts, not just collect it.”

You’re covered there, too. GMail provides two ways to send mail from a different email address that you already own:

  • Using a custom “From: address.” What that mean? Essentially, you can provide Gmail with another email address that you already own (say, your school email) and that you would like to be able to send email from within Gmail. Gmail then sends that account an email with a link; once you verify that you do in fact own that email address, then you can start sending emails signed by that address from within Gmail (as opposed to Outlook, Entourage, or whatever client your school uses). Doing this is a very simple process, and Google provides simple, five-step instructions for setting up a custom “From: address.” (If five steps sounds like a bit much, you might be heartened to learn that the first step is signing into your Gmail account.) Most of the time, using a custom “From: address” works well, though some mail clients, annoyingly, will display “From username@gmail.com On Behalf Of customaddress@mydomain.edu” in the header instead of the sender’s preferred address.
  • Using your other account’s servers. Sometimes using a custom “From: address” won’t cut it. This is especially true if, for instance, you regularly send email to a listserv at your college or university, and that listserv only accepts emails sent from its own domain. Believe us, the listserv software is smart enough to know that you’re really sending from GMail, despite what you’ve said in the From: field. Happily, you can tell GMail that, anytime you send from one of your non-GMail addresses, you want to send the mail using the servers associated with that address. The folks at the Official GMail Blog tell you how in this post. Go into your GMail settings, follow the directions given in the post, and the listserv software will be happy.

Creating infinite email addresses with Gmail

But wait, there’s more! Because while you can use Gmail to collect email from many of your different email accounts and to send email from these different email addresses, you can also use your original Gmail address to create multiple accounts. There are two ways of going about doing this using two little punctuation marks: periods and plus signs.

  • Periods. Many people have periods in their Gmail addresses. They are an easy way to create separation between first and last names. But what you might not know is that Gmail disregards any periods in one’s email address. As such, “profhacker” is the same as “prof.hacker” is the same as “p.r.o.f.h.a.c.k.e.r.” Each of these addresses will come to the same email inbox. And you can send email from each of these addresses, by adding the account under your Gmail settings as described above.
  • Plus signs. You can create a new address by adding a plus sign to the end of your Gmail address and following it with another word or phrase. Thus, “profhacker+technology@gmail.com” and “profhacker+productivity@gmail.com” both send email to the same place. And since you can combine this plus sign hack with the periods, you could also use “prof.hac.ker+lunch@gmail.com.” (Jason briefly mentioned this little plus sign trick two weeks ago.)

So you can create multiple addresses with your one Gmail address, but why would you want to? Well, you can give different addresses to different groups of people. If you do this, you can create some rules and have Gmail sort and label your email upon receipt. The labels will be based on the address that they are sent to. (For a particularly effective and GTD-based approach to this technique, you should check out a post by Nels on his personal blog.) Or you can provide “plus-signed” addresses to different databases that you might use in your research. In this manner, Brian can get results on technology separated from those on trauma or steampunk, which makes them easier to find in the future.

So there’s three ways that we’ve found to corral email into one easy-to-use place. How do you use Gmail to improve your email work flow? Or do you find that you’re more effective when you have all your accounts separated?

[Image by Brian Croxall; CC licensed]