Icky or Not, New Ads Make Gmail Worse

More work stands between users and a squeaky clean inbox.

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If you’ve recently switched over to Gmail’s new auto-organizing inbox lately, you may have noticed some new ads in an unsightly place.

As Google Operating System and others have reported, advertisements are starting to show up within the “Promotions” tab of the new inbox. These messages have a different color background, along with a little “ad” notation, but they otherwise look similar to real e-mails, complete with a sender, subject and bold text in the style of an unread message.

The key distinction is that these aren’t actual messages. Google hasn’t been handing users’ e-mail addresses over to advertisers. Instead, it’s picking out promotional offers that it thinks you might like and sticking them in a section of your inbox.

A lot of the surrounding discussion has been about whether the new ads qualify as spam or are a justifiable way for Google to make money. VentureBeat cries foul. TechCrunch tells everyone to relax. Inevitably, a certain tired and broken truism about the nature of free Internet services makes an appearance.

The bigger issue, though, is how much worse of an experience Gmail becomes as a result of these ads. Obviously, Google sees the ads as an improvement, defending them in a statement to CNet:

As always, advertising keeps Google and Gmail free to use. We work hard to make ads safe, unobtrusive, and relevant. Instead of ads always appearing at the top of your inbox, they’ve been relegated to a more appropriate place in your Promotions tab to create a better overall experience.

I disagree, and my reasoning is tied into an existing dislike of the new inbox. As a compulsive e-mail checker, I find that scattering new messages across a handful of folders just creates more work for me. With the new inbox, if I want to check my e-mail, I need to peek into four locations instead one. That’s not an improvement.

Likewise, the new ads create an additional point of friction. The lack of separation from real messages means you might not recognize them as ads upon first glance. The only way to get rid of them is to click the “X” button, inconveniently on the right side of your inbox, opposite from where the usual e-mail selection boxes reside. The ads are yet another thing to deal with when you’re trying to sort through your inbox, which if it’s like mine is already chaotic enough as is.

Fortunately, the new Gmail inbox isn’t mandatory. You can get rid of it by clicking the gear icon on the top-right corner of the screen and going to “Configure Inbox.” From there, you can deselect all the boxes except “Primary” to go back to the old inbox. You can also just deselect “Promotions” if you like the new inbox sorting but don’t want to see the new ads.