Let Go of Your Email Folders

Free software, not folders, will simplify your email life.
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Go ahead. Pick an analogy to define just how crucial, frustrating and ultimately defeating email can be: the Tower of Virtual Babble, the Broken Rosetta Stone.

Through email, we're completely beholden to everybody we've ever had any contact with. And email can contain literally anything -- your next important piece of business ... or a virus that could destroy your full identity.

The good news for small businesses is that there's a rising tide of business communications tools based on email available from almost everybody including

Microsoft

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and startups like

Coghead.

Kill Your Folders

But before we can take a crack at these new bits of communications software, it's wise improve the efficiency of the email tools you already have.

And that starts with killing all those folders that are cluttering up your email inbox.

I know, axing your friendly folders is heresy, but search technology has made those 75 meticulously labeled folders clinging to your inbox obsolete.

Desktop and Web-based search tools from

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

,

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

, Microsoft and others now let you find specific emails on the basis of any number of search terms, not just the folder's name.

Until now, when were looking for that overdue invoice from say, Hateful Client No. 1, you had to remember that Hateful Client is under "H."

You had to find that folder and scan down zillions of emails until you found that one invoice.

These days, it's smarter to leave all your email in the inbox, untouched, and install a desktop search tool such as Google Desktop Search -- or better yet, upgrade to Windows Vista, which has excellent search built in.

Now let's try to find Mr. Hateful No. 1's invoice. Instead of grazing through folders, simply enter the search terms that describe that invoice: "Hateful, Invoice, No. 1." And chances are you will find your email faster.

Baby Steps

I understand. You love your folders. You did all the work to automatically route different emails to those folders, and killing them might be too big a step.

So here's a neat trick to get you started on folder-free living relatively painlessly:

Set up a free Gmail account, Google's online email client. Use a good long name with a "." or "_" to cut down on spam.

Now forward all your email from all your business accounts to this Gmail account.

Then set up your Outlook to import mail from your spiffy new Gmail account, with an important tiny little hack: Under the "Account Settings" page, hit the "More Settings" button, and under the "Advanced" tab click the box that says "Leave a copy on the server." Then, create a shortcut on your desktop to the inbox of that brand-new Gmail account.

So to find Mister Hateful's invoice, simply click on the desktop Gmail shortcut you just made. Search your Gmail for that invoice among the archived copies of your emails using Google's fabulous Web-based email search tools.

Not only will you will find that invoice really fast, you'll also take advantage of Google's spam filtering and handy online backup of your email accessible from anywhere, even your mobile phone.

Now, obviously, it will take time for enough email to populate your Gmail account so that you will have enough stuff to search through, and keeping both systems going forever would get a bit cumbersome.

But we created a virtual email server, found content we needed to find without using folders and tested out getting our business emails from the Web -- all without spending a nickel.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.