How Gmail Works

Gmail is a popular free e-mail service powered by Goo­gle.
Image courtesy of Google

Since its early beginnings which date all the way back to 2004, Gmail has offered users innovative features such as a gigabyte of free storage, built-in search functions and message groupings.

These features have ensured Gmail's place as a top-rated e-mail provider. In October 2007, Gmail was estimated to be the third largest free e-mail service with 87 million users worldwide, based on data from comScore Media Metrix. Yahoo Mail led the way with approximately 262 million users followed by about 256 million users for second-place MSN Hotmail (now Windows Live e-mail) [source: TechNewsWorld].


While AOL and Yahoo have offered Web-based mail since the 1990s, Gmail started as an internal e-mail service at Google Inc. Originally the service was offered by invitation to Google members in April 2004. In February 2007, Google offered Gmail to everyone [source: Google history].

Since then, Google has expanded the e-mail service's features to include group chat with AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) users, Gmail for mobile devices, access to e-mail from other services like AOL or Yahoo Mail, virus scanning, spam control, shortcuts and more. Gmail also provides messaging in 40 languages and allows attachments up to 20 megabytes in size [source: Google history].

In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll take a closer look at these and other Gmail features. First, let's see how easy it is to set up an account and go through Gmail sign in.


Getting Started with Gmail

­Setting up an account with Gmail is easy.
Image courtesy of Google

Getting started with Gmail is simple, beginning with signing up for a Google account. Once you have that, you can complete the Gmail login and send your first e-mail. Here are some steps to take you to Gmail sign in.

  1. Go to Google, and click on "Sign up for Gmail" at the lower right.
  2. If you already have a Google account, click on "Sign In Here" on the next screen. If you don't have an account, you can sign up for one. You'll be asked to give your name and country and to choose a login name and password to use each time you access your Gmail. You'll also be asked to select and answer a security question (like your first phone number) to use for identification if you forget your password. Click acceptance of the terms of service and privacy policy, and your account will be set up.
  3. Now, you're ready to sign in. Go to Google from most browsers to connect to the sign-in screen page. Enter your user name (with "" at the end) and password at the right, click "Sign In," and you'll be signed in at your mail home page.
  4. Below the Sign In area is a box you can click to remain signed in. For security, don't check this if you're working on a shared computer.
  5. Forgot your ID or password? If so, click "I cannot access my account" below the Sign In button. After answering questions to verify your identity, you'll be contacted by e-mail with instructions.
  6. To sign out when you're done, just click on the words "Sign Out" at the far upper right of the screen page.

By going to "Settings" at the upper right, you can make personalized changes for Gmail. For instance, click "Settings" and then "General." On this screen, you can select the language you want to use, personalize e-mails with your picture and add a signature -- such as your name, address and phone numbers -- that'll appear on every e-mail you send. You also can set up a vacation responder, a response that'll be sent automatically to anyone who e-mails while you're gone. Be sure to click "Save Changes" after you make any changes to settings.


Now that you're ready to use Gmail, go to the next page to learn the basics of sending and receiving e-mails.


Gmail Basics

­Gmail's left panel shows new messages and folders, the middle pane shows e-mails received.
Image courtesy of Google

Gmail basics start with learning to use e-mail -- in other words, sending a message or receiving a message. After that, you'll want to send e-mail attachments, archive messages and use Google search to find information in e-mails.

Sending a Message

To send a message, click "Compose Mail" at the top left. Then type the receiver's address after "To." If you've added addresses to your contact list, you can type the first letter or two of the name for auto-complete, which lets you pick the name you want.


Click on "Add Cc" to add addresses for people whose responses are welcome but not required. Click on "Bcc" to add recipients whose names and addresses will be hidden.

Next, enter your topic after "Subject," and type your message in the large box. Using the symbols above the box, you can change the formatting, font and color of the text. You can also check spelling, add links and attach files. (You'll learn more about attachments later on this page.)

Gmail automatically saves your message in draft every few minutes while you're writing. When your message is complete, click "Send." A confirmation above the window will show your message was sent. If you don't want to save the draft message, delete it from the Draft folder.

Receiving a Message and Responding

Check the tally number next to your Inbox to see if you have new messages. Gmail checks for new messages every two minutes and updates the tally.

Gmail saves a "conversation" of each original message and all replies. When you open a message, the newest in the conversation is on top with the rest stacked below. To read all the messages in the conversation, click "Expand All."

To print a message, click the down arrow next to "Reply" and select "Print." To print the whole conversation, click "Print all."

To forward an individual message, open it and click "Forward" from below the message area. Enter recipients' addresses and add any notes to the message. Click "Send."

Using Attachments

With Gmail, attachments like documents, photos or video are easy to add and read. To attach a file to a message, click "Attach a file" under the Subject field. Find the file you want to attach, and click "Open." "Attach another file" lets you repeat the process. To remove an attached file, click "Remove."

To view an attachment, open the message, click "Download" at the message's bottom and then "Open" or "Save." To view an attachment without downloading, click "View as HTML" after you open the message. You also can open Microsoft Excel files as Google spreadsheets and Microsoft Word files as Google docs.

Message Archives

Archiving lets you move messages from the inbox to All Mail for storage. You can find information in these e-mails later by using the search tool. To archive a message, check the box next to the sender's name and click "Archive." If someone responds to a message you've archived, the whole conversation reappears in your inbox.

Gmail has plenty of features beyond the basics. Next, let's look at some of them, such as security filters, Gmail Notifier to announce new mail, and "retrieve and respond" to access messages from other e-mail services.


Gmail Features

­Gmail users can create their filters for sending and receiving e-mails.
Image courtesy of Google

Gmail features make e-mail easier and more convenient. Let's take a closer look at some like Gmail Notifier, which can alert you when you have a new message, and Mail Fetcher, which allows you to retrieve e-mail from other services, like Yahoo Mail or AOL.

Gmail Notifier

This downloadable application lets you know when you have new Gmail messages -- without opening your browser. The Notifier automatically checks for new messages every two minutes. With it, you can see a brief section of text from up to 30 messages and select a sound to indicate you have new mail.


Running Gmail Notifier requires Windows 2000, Windows XP or a newer version of Windows. Mac users need OS X 10.3.8 or later to run the Notifier, which can also alert them of upcoming events recorded on Google Calendar.

Mail Fetcher

This feature lets you fetch and download messages from up to five other e-mail accounts. Mail Fetcher will check all of the accounts regularly so that mail from them appears automatically in Gmail. Accounts that you want to access must be POP (Post Office Protocol) access enabled. POP allows users to download messages from Gmail's servers so e-mail can be accessed without an Internet connection.

Contact Groups

By creating a contact group, you can quickly send e-mails to everyone in the group. To create a group, click "Contacts" at the left and then "New Group" in the top left corner. Enter the name of the group and click "OK."

To fill the group with contacts, select the contacts you want in the Contacts list. Then open the Groups menu, and under "Add to . . .," select the group you want.

For later additions, enter the contact's name or e-mail address in the "Add this to group" box below the contact list.

To send a message to the group, go to the Compose window. After "To:" enter the first few letters of the contact group's name. Choose from the list that auto-complete suggests and write and send your message.

Security and Spam

Gmail is security conscious, starting with virus scans of every attachment you send. Every attachment you receive is scanned twice, when it's delivered and when you open the message. Questionable e-mails go directly into the spam folder. To remove spam from your inbox, select the unwanted message and click "Report Spam."

You also can send unwanted mail from specific addresses or domains directly to the trash by setting up a filter. Click "Create a filter" under the search box. Fill in fields with your criteria for the filter, and click "Next Step." Choose how you want the e-mails handled by checking a box such as "Delete it." Then click "Create Filter."

Parental Controls

Children under age 13 need parental permission to create a Gmail account. Parents also can use mail filters to block unwanted mail from reaching their children.

Gmail also recommends that parents:

  • Keep their child's computer in a public area of the house so they can monitor online activity.
  • Download parental control software or use browser settings that can block unwanted visits to inappropriate sites.
  • Discuss appropriate e-mail communication and behavior.
  • Advise children not to download attachments from unknown senders -- and to check with an adult if they're unsure.
  • Tell children not to give identifiable photos or information over e-mail or in chats, particularly to strangers.

Gmail continues to look at new ways to send and receive e-mail. Keep reading to learn how you can use Gmail for chat, instant messaging with AIM users, e-mailing from mobile devices and mail with voice.


Gmail Innovations

­Gmail lets users chat with friends directly from their inbox.
Image courtesy of Google

Gmail innovations go beyond simply handling e-mail on your personal computer. With Gmail from Google, you can chat with a friend or in groups, instant message (IM) with other AIM users, take advantage of mail with voice and use Gmail for Mobile from your BlackBerry, iPhone or other mobile device.

Mail with Voice

If you're also signed into downloadable Google Talk while using Gmail's chat features, you can make and receive voice calls. A "Call" button will appear next to your contacts' profiles. Unless that button appears gray, the person is available to talk.


Your contacts also can leave you voice messages using Google Talk's voicemail. These will appear as special messages in your inbox. They have the subject "Voicemail from ContactName (x seconds)" and appear with a telephone icon. To hear voicemail, click "Play" in the conversation view.

Gmail Chat

Like Google Talk, Gmail allows you to chat with just one person or with a group. You can chat with anyone on your chat list who has a colored ball next to his or her name. Go to "Chat" and find and click on the name of the person you want. That will open a chat window, so enter your message and press "Enter."

You also can search for a contact by entering the name you want in the box at the top of Chat. Or you can search for the person you want from your Contacts list and then click the Chat link. When you're finished chatting, click the x in the top right corner of the chat window. Chat works with Internet Explorer 6.0+ or Firefox 1.0+ but not with Safari or other browsers. Chats are saved and can be searched.

Group chat lets you talk with an unlimited number of contacts at once. Here's how to set it up:

  1. Start a chat with one person in your Contacts list.
  2. Click "Options" at the bottom left of the chat window, and select "Group Chat."
  3. Enter the names of contacts you want to add in "Add a person to this chat."
  4. To end the chat, click the x in the corner of the chat window. The group chat continues until everyone has left.

Chat/IM with AIM Users

With Gmail chat, you can sign into your AIM account from Gmail to chat with AIM buddies. They're listed among your contacts, and you can search for them. To chat, you just click on a name on your chat list and type a message.

Gmail for Mobile

Gmail for mobile can be accessed through a smartphone's Web browser or from an application downloaded to the phone. To access by browser, point your phone's browser to Gmail. The interface makes it appear as if you're using Gmail on your computer.

Downloadable Gmail for mobile also keeps your actions in sync with your Gmail account, but it's faster and uses less data than the browser version. To try downloadable Gmail for mobile, point the phone's browser to Gmail applications.

Either version provides Gmail functions like search and conversation view. And both have automatic synching so anything you do in Gmail from your phone is also shown in your regular Gmail account.

This article gives an overiew of Gmail services, but Google keeps upgrading and adding to its offerings. For lots more information about Gmail and related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

How do I use Gmail for the first time?
If you're using Gmail for the first time, you'll need to set up an account. To do this, go to the Gmail website and click on the "Create an account" button. You'll then need to enter your name, choose a username, create a password, and enter your birthday and gender. Once you've done this, you'll be able to start using Gmail.
What is the difference between email and Gmail?
Gmail is an email service provided by Google. Email is a method of electronic communication.
How do you use Gmail?
Gmail is a free email service provided by Google. Gmail can be accessed by logging in with a Google account on the Gmail website, or by using the Gmail app for Android or iOS. Gmail offers features such as storage, labeling, and archiving of emails, as well as support for multiple email accounts.