What is the difference between "Important" and "Starred" message in Gmail Priority Inbox?


4 Answers 4


Summary of existing answers describing differences:

  1. Provide an additional means to organize messages that behave differently independently from, but also in relation to, tabs and categories
  2. Specific differences between importance and starred in how they operate, how much control you have in their usage, what they effect, and when they do so.

    importance importance-icon = machine learning algorithm (mostly Google controlled)

    • automatically applied via intelligent Google rules based on user actions
    • manual influence by click icon to add/remove importance or hotkeys to add/remove, respectively: + or =, - while message is selected. This will, hopefully, coach/teach the machine which messages should be designated "important". Messages may be altered in bulk by selecting messages, then either changing from More dropdown, Mark not important or via the hotkeys.
    • manual override via filters which also may influence the automatic machine algorithms in effect.

    star yellow-star icon = user algorithm (User controlled)

    • automatic: via filters, operated on when messages received
    • manual: via user selection, operated on existing messages
      • per message: click star or hotkey s to cycle through stars
      • bulk message: (only yellow-star; ) Select conversation(s) MoreAdd star

An additional distinction not mentioned yet is:

  • importance importance-icon applies to conversations (not per message)
  • star yellow-star icon applies to messages (not conversation)

If multiple stars are enabled (SettingsGeneralStars) and turning conversations off is not desirable, this is an important distinction because setting a star in a conversation will only star the last received message, not all messages in conversation.

Not being able to star all messages in a conversation to the same type creates a serious drawback when searching. If a conversation does not have all messages uniformly starred, it becomes impossible to negate a search for conversations containing that star. E.g. -has:red-bang will only filter out conversations with all messages marked with red exclamation point "star".

Since setting stars other than yellow-star () cannot be done in bulk, negated searching based on stars becomes effectually impossible.

However, the current methods and behavior can be useful as each message in a conversation can be tagged a unique way.

This issue could be handled by Google better to allow for more use cases by adding options in settings to:

  • determine how search handles conversations with stars
    • Default (current existing behavior): -has:red-bang return TRUE for conversation only if all messages marked with red exclamation point "star"
    • Override option: -has:red-bang return TRUE for conversation if any message in conversation is marked with red exclamation point "star"
  • star per message or per conversation
    • Default (current existing behavior): star per message
    • Override option: star per conversation; allow for automatically starring all associated messages in conversation to same star

All of this gets interesting because the Gmail team probably has to make all future design decisions towards interoperability with the in-development Google Inbox team (How features in Inbox and Gmail work together)

  • 1
    There is a workaround for negated search with starred conversations. search for has:red-bang then apply a temporary label to the results, e.g. redbang. For the final search just do with -label:redbang to filter out conversations that have at least one red-bang star.
    – jiggunjer
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 9:47

They appear to be separate "categories" - you can have starred messages, important (use the +/- buttons to toggle) messages, and you can have important messages that are starred. I find it quite easy to use - Google tries to work out what's important for you, while stars are manually set, either by filters or added yourself.

What is interesting to note is that your Priority Inbox can split the important email from the starred email - and that you can decide which to show (or not).


Important is algorithmically pre-categorized by Gmail, while Starred is manually post-categorized by the user.


The difference is that "starred" messages are those that you have explicitly added a star to; "important" messages are those that the system, via an algorithm, believes are important.

While you can manually mark messages as important (or unimportant), what you're really doing is providing the algorithm with more information so that it can be more intelligent about which future messages it marks "important".

What you actually do with this information is up to you. For me, I use the "important" designation to prioritize the messages I read in my inbox. I "star" messages that I don't want to keep unread in my inbox but which I don't want to lose track of, either because it's something I need to do or which will be obsolete in the near future.

  • 1
    Got it. So a star is special, it only gets there manually, or by my own filter. Never googlized.
    – Bob Stein
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 20:20

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