Gmail’s contact management is the pits

I have been a big fan of Gmail for the past two years until lately when they made “improvements” to their interface — and have gone a step backwards.

For those of you still living in the stone ages, Google’s Gmail is a free Webmail service, and available for free as well for domains that you own too. Their philosophy is to have world-class search, to be able to classify messages so that you can easily find them. Oh yeah, and do no evil. They lose on all three counts by me.

What did they break? The whole contact management section, that’s all. There is no easy way to delete a contact from a group once you have more than a few groups. The interface takes longer to load and requires a more recent Web browser to work. Safari 2 and IE 6 aren’t recent enough, it seems. And, the whole search engine thing is broken: if I want to search on a term that is part of my notes on a contact, I can’t do it with the Search interface of the contacts page. For example, I am heading out to Boulder to visit my daughter next month: a search on “Boulder” comes up empty, even though I know I have entered information on several people in the area. The old interface worked just fine, and displayed things correctly, and could search across any data that you entered in your contacts.

Gmail’s contact groups have been the weakest part of the service for a while. In late June, all of my group members went missing for about 24 hours, and I — and many others — had a fit.

At the heart of any email solution for me are two things: being able to run it from any Web browser and being closely tied to my contacts. Gmail does neither: to delete that errant contact mentioned earlier, I had to bring up a version of Windows with IE6. That seems backwards.

What I liked about Gmail was being able to create ad hoc groups and mini-mailing lists of my contacts, arranged by subject, geography, or some other common thread. I must have 40 or 50 different groups of my more than 8500 contacts. I am not trying to brag, but I took the whole notion of “never throw anything away” to heart and now am stuck with this huge list.

Gmail offers ways that you can export your contacts into a CSV or a file that contains V-cards, but neither of these exports contains the group identities of the contacts. The only way that I have figured out to make backups of this information is to take screen shots one by one of the groups that are displayed. Talk about the stone ages. This is so cumbersome that I have only done it once, since shortly after the group memberships were restored from the June outage.

So what can I do? I could get off of Gmail, but that means finding something else to use for my contacts and cleaning them up. Plaxo Pulse and LinkedIn both do a nice job of keeping everyone’s contact info current, but neither have a nice Webmail solution. Apple’s Address Book can take the Gmail V-card export just fine and also do the searching across all contact information, but that ties me to a Mac when I travel. I could go with a Web-based ACT solution, but I have stayed away from ACT for this long I am not sure I want to start now. And I don’t want to run an Exchange server and use Outlook Web access either.

Of course, Google could fix their contact management module, but I am not holding my breath. I hate it when software companies succumb to adding features at the expense of usability, and turn a great product into an also-ran. I guess they are taking some lessons in becoming evil from their pals in Redmond.


10 thoughts on “Gmail’s contact management is the pits

  1. One of my readers writes:

    or it could be that they will eventually work on a solid contact management system… FYI, I use plaxo + the mac address book (one can do the same with outlook) + google + AIM + Facebook (using FacebookSync on the mac) + LinkedIn + etc to maintain my contact list… While not as impressive as yours, I have a respectable 1500+ current people in mine of which about 80% is known to be correct. I do see the value of groups in gmail (as I’m starting to host my own mail using google apps for your domain) but I think ultimately, what one needs is a decent personal CRM type of app.

    Ultimately, a good contact management solution ought to integrate the following:
    – Contact Info with every field searchable
    – Related emails so one can track data with a contact
    – Related IMs for the same reason
    – A notes section to add notes for related calls, face to face meetings, etc…
    – Possibly related linkage on social networks

    This would be kind of a killer app, in my view and I found that most current solutions fall very short of that!

  2. After this post made its rounds through Google, I spoke to Keith Coleman, Gmail’s Product Manager, late last Friday. Coleman basically agreed with my major points and told me that they have completely rewrote the Gmail code base to bring it more in line with other Google apps, and to share a common data repository for contacts. They are working on fixes to the problems that I mentioned and hopefully will have them posted soon. He also recommended that Mac users use Safari instead of Firefox because of speed improvements. I was encouraged that a) they actually wanted to talk to me and b) seem to be trying hard to make the changes. I suggested that they do a better job of making users aware of the limitations that I mentioned in my post and hopefully will hear from them when they have fixed some of the issues.

  3. Pingback: Personal Relationship Manager

  4. I too have lost faith in the almighty google. While the gmail contact manager seems to have worked some of its kinks out, the same contact manager in GoogleApps is still pretty primitive. Groups/labels can’t be exported or imported, the program is extremely slow to load and edit anything if you have a large contact list, there is no easy way to select multiple contacts without having to check the boxes one at a time (no shift key feature), many labels that I attached to a large number of contacts were actually somehow UNDONE (i think due to the slow loading of scripts on the page), and the list goes on.
    There are no mentions of any of these limitations anywhere and it’s wasted a lot of my time trying to save my work and contacts from being completely messed up. I don’t understand why they would hail the new GoogleApps as being so new and improved but forget to actually update the programs that they already fixed in the regular gmail applications.

  5. finally someone else agrees! i hate the gmail contact manager too. not intuitive in the least. try using a different contact manager that seamlessly brings in contact info from webmail accounts and that does a much better job at making sense of your huge contact list than Gmail. i like, which is a free site, for contact management and the free sync, as well as the business networking community that’s tied in as well.

  6. This article is over 3 years old and is still relevant. Gmail is being left behind by Highrise, Zoho, Batchbook, BigContacts etc etc. Even Microsoft Outlook has Business Contact Manager. Time for Google to get its Contacts at least competitive.

  7. Now 5 years old and it couldn’t be more to the truth. I am trying to deleate a contact in my circle and Gmail just doesn’t let me. Doesn’t offer me the option! Even when I manually just remove the name and email from that contact.. It puts it back in! Plus Gmail contacts, with it’s emphasis on “circles” is more invasive and less editable than ever before. Gmail “merges” contacts, profiles, google+ pages, and all kinds of elements… and I CAN’T UN-MERGE THEM. I used Oultook for years and it was great for grouping contacts into catagories. But Google will always be, first and foremost, a SEARCH ENGINE! What they do so well in one area does not carry over to data managment. It just doesn’t.

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