How to Use Google+ and GMail to Track Who and What You Care About

Google recently made some changes so that you can now subscribe to notifications from specific Google+ circles and receive those notifications as messages in GMail. Many people responded to this news with a yawn, and some irritation, but in this post I want to show you how these changes turn Google+ into a powerhouse for tracking what the people you care about are saying about the topics you care about. 

Google+ is a great way to share interests with those who share our interests, but there are times when our interests don't overlap. We need a better way to filter our circles for just the topics we care most about, and while it's still rudimentary and requires some work to set up, GMail integration with Google+ offers a surprisingly useful path to getting us there.

This path is not exactly for everyone. To do it, you're going to need to connect some of your Google+ circles with GMail,  stop using the Google+ notification box, and start using GMail instead. 

Weaning Myself from the Red Box

I have personally made the jump so that I'm now using GMail to handle all my Google+ notifications. That's right; my little red Google+ notification square is now permanently pegged at 99+ and my GMail account is flooded with Google+ notifications. But it actually is working quite well in spite of all that. 

Before getting into some of the benefits of this approach, I'm going to do what most writers avoid at all costs: I'm going to send you to another website, trusting that you'll come back here to finish this post. Mark Traphagen has an excellent piece that explains how to set yourself up so that Google+ posts feed into your GMail

Go ahead, read it. I'll wait... 

Done? Good. Welcome back. 

Now remember - depending on how aggressive you are with setting your circle subscriptions, you stand a good chance of pegging your box at 99+, just like I did. My advice is to start small and build up as you gain more confidence and experience using what I'm talking about. This path is not for everyone, but while what I describe here may look a little geeky and hard, it's not nearly as bad as it sounds once you dive into it and start playing around yourself. 

Filter by Your Google+ Circles:

At this point, I'm going to assume that you have some circles set up so that they are now sending notifications as email messages from Google+ into GMail. Everything you're reading below is about how to process those messages within GMail, and I'm assuming that your read what Mark wrote in the above post about how to set up up the notifications in Google+ and set up basic filters in GMail. 

In all of the various filters I illustrate below, make sure use Mark's tip and use (Google+) in the "From" field of the search drop-down. See the "From" field in the image below:

From there, let's say that, like me, you're actually crazy enough to subscribe to more than one of your Google+ circles, and that you now want to set up a filter to route notifications from one Google+ circle into a particular folder and notifications from another circle into a different folder. You will need to set up a different filter for each circle you want to do this for. 

In the above image, I have a Google+ circle called "Tier 1," and so to filter my incoming messages and grab just the notifications from that circle, I type (circle:"Tier 1") in the "Has the words" field in the GMail search drop-down. Note that there is no space after the colon, you need the parenthese, and your circle name needs to be in quotes. I've highlighted this field in the above image so that you can see the query in place.  

Once I do that and then create a filter to route all those Tier 1 circle messages to a GMail folder called "Tier 1," I've essentially just replicated what I see in Google+ when I click on the stream for that Tier 1 circle. 

Why would I do that you ask? Yep. It's way more work that simply looking at those posts on Google+, and it's actually a better reading experience there too. So, again, why would I want to do this? Well, because of what I'm about to show you next.

Filter by Topic:

Here's where it gets interesting because now we're going to start filtering by topics, so that only those posts from people in my Tier 1 circle that match certain words I care about are going to show up. 

Let's say I'm interested in any posts from people in my Tier 1 circle that mention the words: engagement, engage, corporation, firm, social, innovation, influence, soul, leadership, technology, networks, emergent,  identity, mobile. authorship or creativity. To do that, I would simply type the following into the "Has the words" field in the search box:
(circle:"Tier 1") AND (engagement OR engage OR corporation OR firm OR social OR innovation OR influence OR soul OR leadership OR technology OR networks OR emergent OR identity OR mobile OR authorship OR creative)
I can also create another folder for all of the posts from my Tier 1 folks that don't match those topics, and I do that by simply adding a "-" in front of my list of topics:

(circle:"Tier 1") AND -(engagement OR engage OR corporation OR firm OR social OR innovation OR influence OR soul OR leadership OR technology OR networks OR emergent OR identity OR mobile OR authorship OR creative))
It looks like this in the search box:

If you need some help narrowing the flow of posts coming in from Google+, here's a handy guide to Boolean operators to for filtering messages in GMail.

The result of these two filters is that I now have two folders for my Tier 1 circle; one that includes all topics I'm interested in (which I check all the time), and one which does not (which I check less frequently). Here's what it looks like once messages start dropping into the folder. Yep, pretty much like GMail: 

It's only been a week or so since I've been using this trick, so the jury is still out. So far though, I have to say that I am finding way more interesting stuff on Google+ and with way less work. 

Don't Clutter Your Inbox

If you do go this route and begin using GMail as your filter notification, guess what is going to happen? Yep, you're going to get a lot of email, and you need to make sure it doesn't overwhelm your inbox. To ensure that doesn't happen, you really need to set your filters so that these incoming messages from Google+ skip your inbox. So when you're setting up your filter, after you set your search parameters and click "Create filter with this search" you'll get a second screen where you'll want to use the following settings:

Avoid Stress: Learn to Delete

Even if you are successful in keeping your inbox clean, you're still going to see a ton of messages in whatever folders you do set up to receive your Google+ notifications. You'll be surprised at how quickly they accumulate. 

Here's the thing: you're going to have to be comfortable with deleting them. That's something you don't do today within Google+. When you miss someone's post on Google+, it simply drifts slowly down your feed, never making you feel bad for not doing something with it, because you never even knew was there in the first place. 

Now, you're going to see an actual message. And if you're like me, not reading it is going to bother you at first. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. It just depends on who you are. So here's the deal: you're not going to be able to read everything; that means you're going to have to get used to deleting people's posts. 

Let me repeat that: you're going to need to get used to deleting people's posts

Sometimes, you're going to have to nuke hundreds of these new messages. If you don't, you're going to drive yourself crazy, and this whole process just won't work. If it helps, just remember that these are posts you would have never seen in your old way of doing things on Google+. So with that in mind, bravely "select all" from the top-left corner of GMail, and hit the delete button. If you go for some time without deleting, and you've got more messages than fit on the screen, just "select all" and above your messages you'll see an option to delete all the messages in that folder:

Here's what you do - you click the select all X conversations, even if there are 1,304 of them. delete them all and go grab a coffee or something to make you feel better. Don't worry, there will be plenty more soon enough. You can read those ones. 

Quick Conclusion

The key in all this, of course, is getting the right set of circles and the right set of topics that you want to follow. I can tell you firsthand that it's an iterative process. I'm tweaking the topics in my filters by doing spot checks on posts I filtered out to see what new words I should add. I'm even thinking about yanking a few words that simply result in too much noise. 

This process is also making me way more careful about who I put in the circles to which I now subscribe. Even with all this filtering, subscribing to someone on Google+ in this way is a big deal because you end up seeing way more of what they share. 

All in all, it's still early in my experience with this new setup, but I have to say that I'm really happy with it. It is dramatically changing my experience on Google+. My guess is that Google will keep the little red notification square as a way for more casual users to use Google+, but this GMail integration is already proving to be a useful power tool for those who want to take their use of the network to the next level. 

If you go this route, and figure out some additional tips and tricks, please share them here. I'd love to hear them.