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It’s always a good idea to have a fully filled-in contact list attached to your email account. Names, addresses, phone numbers, email accounts, birthdays….then you can chuck those tatty paper address books away.

That’s the theory anyway.

From the point of view of Gmail though, it is notoriously hard to keep things clean and organized. To give credit to Gmail where credit is due, their new version of Contacts has done a much better job of taming things. With the older version, things were just thrown in, mixed about, and burped out.

With the new version, it is much easier to keep things tidy. Especially when trying to find duplicate entries. This is great because when you have a smartphone, Google contact lists are often synchronized How Easy Is It To Sync Google Mail, Contacts & Calendar To Your iPad? How Easy Is It To Sync Google Mail, Contacts & Calendar To Your iPad? You can use Apple's iCloud for email and contacts on your iPad, but there's a good chance you already use Gmail and Google Calendar. Read More in. If your web contact list is a mess, so will your phone’s.

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So let’s see what we can do to keep our digital black book clean and tidy. Then maybe you will find the phone number for that hot guy or girl you met at a bar last month. Does “sorry, Google Contacts ate your number” count as a valid excuse for not calling earlier?

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First, Move to the New Version

Since the older version of Contacts is still in use, it would be rather difficult if I had to cover both versions. So since the new version is much better, I recommend you switch over. You have to switch over manually, since the new version is still technically called a “preview”.

So to move over, look in the left-hand sidebar and you will see an option that says :

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Click on that little champ and you will be moved over to the new version right away. The URL for your contacts will now be https://contacts.google.com/u/0/preview/all. (although http://www.google.com/contacts will automatically redirect there as well).

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Once you have imported any email addresses A Quick Guide to Importing & Exporting Email Contacts A Quick Guide to Importing & Exporting Email Contacts Would losing your email contacts be a nightmare? Better back them up! We'll show you how for Outlook, Gmail, and Thunderbird. The contacts backup process should be similar for other clients. Read More from other web mail services, you can then start to spring clean.

Disable Contact List Auto-Complete

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The first thing you have to do is disable the auto-complete in Gmail’s Settings. Go to Gmail and click on the Cog Wheel. Go to Settings > General > Create contacts for auto-complete.

This feature (when enabled) will put every email address you receive into your address book. This will rapidly make your contacts an absolute mess. So it is best to enable “I’ll Add Contacts Myself”. Save and go back to your contacts page.

Find the Duplicates & Merge Them

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The next step is to find the duplicates, and this is where the new version of Contacts shines. In the old version, you had to look for them yourself. In the new version, the duplicates are automatically found, and you are asked if you want to merge them. You can either examine and merge each one individually, or you can trust Google and click “Merge all“.

Right away, you will notice a huge improvement in your contacts list. No more five versions of your mother. Now she is all tucked in nice and tidy into one entry.

Delete the Crap

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OK, here’s one of the tedious parts. You now need to go through the remaining list and delete all the crap. We’re talking spam addresses, Still Getting Spam? 4 Email Mistakes to Avoid Today Still Getting Spam? 4 Email Mistakes to Avoid Today Avoiding spam is impossible. But there are some lesser known tips, tricks, and secrets that can help you fight the battle against suspicious email. Read More as in both the Viagra-type spam and also from people you didn’t ask to hear from (I’m looking at you Nigerian bank manager with a dead client Do Nigerian Scam Emails Hide A Terrible Secret? [Opinion] Do Nigerian Scam Emails Hide A Terrible Secret? [Opinion] Another day, another spam email drops into my inbox, somehow working its way around the Windows Live spam filter that does such a good job of protecting my eyes from all of the other unsolicited... Read More worth $50 trillion), people you no longer communicate with, email addresses which you use to send contact to web apps (assuming you don’t use them of course)…..basically anything which makes your list look like a digital landfill.

Depending on the size of your contact list, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes to complete. Be ruthless. Prune! Cut! Slash!. Think to yourself “do I really need to have this email address cluttering up my list?”. I managed to get my list down from just under 500 to just under 100. It was actually quite liberating. Google says the upper limit is 25,000 contacts, but come on, who in their right mind has 25,000 legitimate contacts?

Going through my phone contact list now is the digital equivalent of getting the exact piece you want in Tetris. In other words, perfect!

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Exclude Google Plus Followers from Your List

Google Plus Google Plus: A Guide For Everyone Google Plus: A Guide For Everyone If you’re reading this guide, you have probably wondered, “Why should I sign up for Google+?” The answer is simple: Google. You may have heard of them. Read More is probably one of the most insidious things that Google has ever invented. My initial appreciation for it Several Tips To Help You Get Started With Google Plus Several Tips To Help You Get Started With Google Plus Google's latest attempt to get into social networking has started to slowly get off the ground and so far, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. That is, if you have managed to snag a beta... Read More very quickly turned sour when Google decided to push Plus into every single nook and cranny of a Google product. Thankfully they are now rolling that back, but the memo doesn’t seem to have reached the Gmail team, because your contacts list has your Plus followers in it (assuming the setting is enabled).

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What’s even worse is that the “Find Duplicates” option doesn’t count a Plus follower as a duplicate, if they are already in your contacts list.

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To illustrate this, here is our managing editor, Ryan Dube, in my contact list. The first one is his proper entry and the second one (without the photo) is his Plus entry. Two separate entries, but according to Contacts, I have no duplicates.

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So in the interests of productivity, tidiness, brevity, whatever you want to call it, exclude the “Circles” from Plus. Google Plus is a dying animal Google's Plus: The Latest in Long Line of Social Flops Google's Plus: The Latest in Long Line of Social Flops Google's history of launching social network is a series of failures. Read More anyway. What use is it in your address book?

Fill out All the Fields for Each Contact

Now you have merged the duplicates, removed the crap, and nuked Google Plus, it’s time to work on each remaining contact. This will be the longest part and requires the most dedication. It will be tempting to cut corners and skip on some steps, just to get it finished. But keep at it. You will appreciate it later. Grab some coffee, put on some good music, and hunker down for the long haul.

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Double-click on a contact to open it and click the pencil in the top right hand corner to edit. Now it is more than likely that some fields are going to be a complete mess, while others will be totally blank.

Also, as you can see from one of the screenshots in the previous section, you can set a country code for phone numbers. If your numbers in your contacts are all or mainly from one country, you can set the country code and Google will auto-insert it for you. The downside of course is when you have a number from another country. Suddenly things start to get into a mess, and those numbers will need to be fixed.

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Where you see fields inviting you to “Add a….., double-click on them and start typing.  If you scroll down to the bottom of the box, you will see a link called “Show All Fields“. If you click on that, suddenly you are spoilt for choice, including adding how to pronounce the name. You can even make custom fields, if you want to specify if a contact prefers boxers or briefs.

Finally, if the contact is very important to you, you have the option to mark them with a yellow star, just like Gmail.

Clean Up the Contact’s Name & Address

Grab a Red Bull or two to keep up that flagging energy because we are almost done. The hardest parts are over and we are now on the home stretch.

When going through each contact, make sure the contact’s full name is typed correctly along with their full address. As well as being able to immediately call up the right person when writing an email, having the profile properly filled out makes Google Maps an absolute delight to use.

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If you are on the road, and you need directions to a contact’s location, just type their name into Maps, and the name from your contacts will pop up with the full address. Click on them, and the map will zoom in to their location, where you can then request directions. Who needs an expensive GPS when you’ve got Google Maps on a data plan?

Apparently, it’s 8,500 km from my place to Saikat’s. If I start walking now, I will be there, via a scenic route through Afghanistan, in 72 days. That’s doable.

Create Groups to Categorize Contacts

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To be really super-duper organized, you can assign each contact to a group. Just click “New Group” to create a new one. Adding contacts to a group is simple. Go down the contact list, mouse over the desired contacts, and click the tick box on the left-hand side.

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That immediately brings up a blue bar at the top of the screen, with several options. One of them is to add to a group, or change groups. Clicking on that gives you a list of the groups. Click the group you want and the contact will be sent there.

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Now you can click on each group in the left-hand sidebar and see all of the contacts assigned there.

Make a Backup

After all that hard work, you need to make a backup of everything How to Download & Back Up Your Gmail & Other Google Data How to Download & Back Up Your Gmail & Other Google Data We’re storing more and more data in the cloud these days. Email, contacts, documents, photos, calendar entries - you name it, it’s on Google’s servers. But what happens when the services we rely on go... Read More , in case Google Contacts goes belly-up. Maybe they will have a glitch on their end, or maybe you will mess it up on your end. Either way, having a backup solves all problems, and it is not difficult in the slightest. You just need to remember to update the backup on a regular basis.

In the left-hand sidebar is an option called “More“. Expand that and you will see “Export“. That’s your backup option. But when you click “Export“, you will see this.

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Remember, this is a preview version of Contacts, and the bubble-wrap hasn’t all been taken off yet. So for the time being, you need to revert back to the old version of Contacts to export your list. Don’t worry, when you revert back again to the new version, everything will be exactly as you left it.

So, in the old version of Contacts, look to the top of the screen and the “More” menu. Drop that down and choose “Export”.

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Then you will get some options. Choose what you want, depending on your needs, then click the “Export” button. You will then get the requested file downloaded to your computer.

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Use IFTTT & Zapier Scripts

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From here on out, the goal is automation, automation, automation. Keep your contacts in shape and backed up with as little effort as possible on your end.

This is where IFTTT and Zapier come in. You all know these web services – enabling you to automate numerous aspects of your online life for free. In my opinion, IFTTT is the easier of the two to use, but that’s just me.

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Be careful though with some of these scripts. Backing up to spreadsheets has the potential for LOTS of duplicates, and marking new contacts in your Google Calendar is a recipe for disaster. So be very selective in which ones you choose.

“Hi, I Cleaned Up My Address Book & Found Your Number! Free Tonight?”

If you follow the above tips, and stay on top of it, you will end up with a much more improved contacts list. Let us know in the comments what pro strategies you use to keep your contacts list in tip-top shape.

Image Credits : xkcd : Heaven. Other attribution-free images courtesy of Pixabay.

  1. Jason Drapala
    March 1, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Excellent post I appreciate the effort! Now if I could just figure out how to consolidate and clean my iPhone contacts at the same time. I think the two lists have somehow converged and become cloud-immortal.

    • Mark O'Neill
      March 3, 2016 at 12:47 pm

      Is your phone syncing with your Gmail contact list? Then disconnect the Google account from the phone (in settings). Then delete all the contacts from your phone list. Clean up the contacts in Gmail, then reconnect the account to your phone. The phone will then sync with your newly cleaned up contacts list.

  2. Joe
    March 1, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    This doesn't really mention that the option for creating contacts for auto-complete is in Gmail's settings, not in Contacts' settings.

    • Mark O'Neill
      March 1, 2016 at 7:10 pm

      You're right. I slipped up there by not making that clearer. I will ask my editor to make the necessary adjustment to the article. Many thanks for pointing that out :-)

  3. Read and Share
    March 1, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    Great writeup! Wish there was a way to hide unused fields -- so we ca download cleaner, leaner backup files.

    • Mark O'Neill
      March 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm

      Well, if you don't fill out a field, then when you click "save", the field disappears. Similarly, if you don't use a field, I am pretty certain it doesn't show up in the backup.

      • Read and Share
        March 1, 2016 at 6:50 pm

        For backup (and easy local access when internet is down), I download a backup to Excel -- which results in numerous empty columns for all the unused fields. Would be nice if the backup's contain just the ten or so fields/columns actually used.

        Not the end of the world or anything, but options would be nice...

        • Mark O'Neill
          March 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm

          OK, I didn't know that. Well, you don't need to open the Excel file to be able to upload it to Contacts. So in a way, you don't need to look at the way it has been laid out, if you get what I mean.

  4. Peter Fitzsimmons
    March 1, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    There's my tasks for this afternoon!

    Thanks for this.

    • Mark O'Neill
      March 1, 2016 at 6:45 pm

      Glad to help. :-)

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