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gmailctl

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This utility helps you generate and maintain Gmail filters in a declarative way. It has a Jsonnet configuration file that aims to be simpler to write and maintain than using the Gmail web interface, to categorize, label, archive and manage your inbox automatically.

Table of contents

Motivation

If you use Gmail and have to maintain (like me) a lot of filters (to apply labels, get rid of spam or categorize your emails), then you probably have (like me) a very long list of messy filters. At a certain point one of your messages got mislabled and you try to understand why. You scroll through that horrible mess of filters, you wish you could find-and-replace stuff, test the changes on your filters before applying them, refactor some filters together... in a way treat them like you treat your code!

Gmail allows one to import and export filters in XML format. This can be used to maintain them in some better way... but dear Lord, no! Not by hand! That's what most other tools do: providing some kind of DSL that generate XML filters that can be imported in your settings... by hand [this is the approach of the popular antifuchs/gmail-britta for example].

Gmail happens to have also a neat API that we can use to automate the import step as well, so to eliminate all manual, slow tasks to be done with the Gmail settings.

This project then exists to provide to your Gmail filters:

  1. Maintainability;
  2. An easy to understand, declarative, composable language;
  3. A builtin query simplifier, to keep the size of your filters down (Gmail has a limit of 1500 chars per filter);
  4. Ability to review your changes before applying them;
  5. Automatic update of the settings (no manual import) in seconds.

Install

gmailctl is written in Go and requires at least Go version 1.15. Make sure to setup your $GOPATH correctly, including the bin subdirectory in your $PATH.

go get -u github.com/mbrt/gmailctl/cmd/gmailctl

Alternatively, if you're on macOS, you can install easily via Homebrew:

brew install gmailctl

Once installed, run the init process:

gmailctl init

This will guide you through setting up the Gmail APIs and update your settings without leaving your command line.

Usage

asciicast

The easiest way to use gmailctl is to run gmailctl edit. This will open the local .gmailctl/config.jsonnet file in your editor. After you exit the editor the configuration is applied to Gmail. See Configuration for the configuration file format. This is the preferred way if you want to start your filters from scratch.

NOTE: It's recommended to backup your current configuration before you apply the generated one for the first time. Your current filters will be wiped and replaced with the ones specified in the config file. The diff you'll get during the first run will probably be pretty big, but from that point on, all changes should generate a small and simple to review diff.

Migrate from another solution

If you want to preserve your current filters and migrate to a more sane configuration gradually, you can try to use the download command. This will look up at your currently configured filters in Gmail and try to create a configuration file matching the current state.

NOTE: This functionality is experimental. It's recommended to download the filters and check that they correspond to the remote ones before making any changes, to avoid surprises. Also note that the configuration file will be quite ugly, as expressions won't be reconstructed properly, but it should serve as a starting point if you are migrating from other systems.

Example of usage:

# download the filters to the default configuration file
gmailctl download > ~/.gmailctl/config.jsonnet
# check that the diff is empty and no errors are present
gmailctl diff
# happy editing!
gmailctl edit

Often you'll see imported filters with the isEscaped: true marker. This tells gmailctl to not escape or quote the expression, as it might contain operators that have to be interpreted as-is by Gmail. This happens when the download command was unable to map the filter to native gmailctl expressions. It's recommended to manually port the filter to regular gmailctl operators before doing any changes, to avoid unexpected results. Example of such conversion:

{
  from: "{foo bar baz}",
  isEscaped: true,
}

Can be translated into:

{
  or: [
    {from: "foo"},
    {from: "bar"},
    {from: "baz"},
  ],
}

Other commands

All the available commands (you can also check with gmailctl help):

  apply       Apply a configuration file to Gmail settings
  debug       Shows an annotated version of the configuration
  diff        Shows a diff between the local configuaration and Gmail settings
  download    Download filters from Gmail to a local config file
  edit        Edit the configuration and apply it to Gmail
  export      Export filters into the Gmail XML format
  help        Help about any command
  init        Initialize the Gmail configuration
  test        Execute config tests

Configuration

NOTE: The configuration format is still in alpha and might change in the future. If you are looking for the deprecated versions v1alpha1, or v1alpha2, please refer to docs/v1alpha1.md and docs/v1alpha2.md.

The configuration file is written in Jsonnet, that is a very powerful configuration language, derived from JSON. It adds functionality such as comments, variables, references, arithmetic and logic operations, functions, conditionals, importing other files, parameterizations and so on. For more details on the language, please refer to the official tutorial.

Simple example:

// Local variables help reuse config fragments
local me = {
  or: [
    { to: '[email protected]' },
    { to: '[email protected]' },
  ],
};

// The exported configuration starts here
{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  // Optional author information (used in exports).
  author: {
    name: 'Pippo Pluto',
    email: '[email protected]'
  },
  rules: [
    {
      filter: {
        and: [
          { list: '[email protected]' },
          { not: me },  // Reference to the local variable 'me'
        ],
      },
      actions: {
        archive: true,
        labels: ['news'],
      },
    },
  ],
}

The Jsonnet configuration file contains mandatory version information, optional author metadata and a list of rules. Rules specify a filter expression and a set of actions that will be applied if the filter matches.

Filter operators are prefix of the operands they apply to. In the example above, the filter applies to emails that come from the mail list '[email protected]' AND the recipient is not 'me' (which can be '[email protected]' OR '[email protected]').

We will see all the features of the configuration file in the following sections.

Search operators

Search operators are the same as the ones you find in the Gmail filter interface:

  • from: the mail comes from the given address
  • to: the mail is delivered to the given address
  • subject: the subject contains the given words
  • has: the mail contains the given words

In addition to those visible in the Gmail interface, you can specify natively the following common operators:

  • list: the mail is directed to the given mail list
  • cc: the mail has the given address as CC destination
  • bcc: the mail has the given address as BCC destination

One more special function is given if you need to use less common operators1, or want to compose your query manually:

  • query: passes the given contents verbatim to the Gmail filter, without escaping or interpreting the contents in any way.

Example:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: { subject: 'important mail' },
      actions: {
        markImportant: true,
      },
    },
    {
      filter: {
        query: 'dinner AROUND 5 friday has:spreadsheet',
      },
      actions: {
        delete: true,
      },
    },
  ],
}

Logic operators

Filters can contain only one expression. If you want to combine multiple of them in the same rule, you have to use logic operators (and, or, not). These operators do what you expect:

  • and: is true only if all the sub-expressions are also true
  • or: is true if one or more sub-expressions are true
  • not: is true if the sub-expression is false.

Example:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: {
        or: [
          { from: 'foo' },
          {
            and: [
              { list: 'bar' },
              { not: { to: 'baz' } },
            ],
          },
        ],
      },
      actions: {
        markImportant: true,
      },
    },
  ],
}

This composite filter marks the incoming mail as important if:

  • the message comes from "foo", or
  • it is coming from the mailing list "bar" and not directed to "baz"

Reusing filters

Filters can be named and referenced in other filters. This allows reusing concepts and so avoid repetition. Note that this is not a gmailctl functionality but comes directly from the fact that we rely on Jsonnet.

Example:

local toMe = {
  or: [
    { to: '[email protected]' },
    { to: '[email protected]' },
  ],
};
local notToMe = { not: toMe };

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: {
        and: [
          { from: 'foobar' },
          notToMe,
        ],
      },
      actions: {
        delete: true,
      },
    },
    {
      filter: toMe,
      actions: {
        labels: ['directed'],
      },
    },
  ],
}

In this example, two named filters are defined. The toMe filter gives a name to emails directed to '[email protected]' or to '[email protected]'. The notToMe filter negates the toMe filter, with a not operator. Similarly, the two rules reference the two named filters above. The name reference is basically copying the definition of the filter in place.

The example is effectively equivalent to this one:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: {
        and: [
          { from: 'foobar' },
          {
            not: {
              or: [
                { to: '[email protected]' },
                { to: '[email protected]' },
              ],
            },
          },
        ],
      },
      actions: {
        delete: true,
      },
    },
    {
      filter: {
        or: [
          { to: '[email protected]' },
          { to: '[email protected]' },
        ],
      },
      actions: {
        labels: ['directed'],
      },
    },
  ],
}

Actions

Every rule is a composition of a filter and a set of actions. Those actions will be applied to all the incoming emails that pass the rule's filter. These actions are the same as the ones in the Gmail interface:

  • archive: true: the message will skip the inbox;
  • delete: true: the message will go directly to the trash can;
  • markRead: true: the message will be mark as read automatically;
  • star: true: star the message;
  • markSpam: false: do never mark these messages as spam. Note that setting this field to true is not supported by Gmail (I don't know why);
  • markImportant: true: always mark the message as important, overriding Gmail heuristics;
  • markImportant: false: do never mark the message as important, overriding Gmail heuristics;
  • category: <CATEGORY>: force the message into a specific category (supported categories are "personal", "social", "updates", "forums", "promotions");
  • labels: [list, of, labels]: an array of labels to apply to the message. Note that these labels have to be already present in your settings (they won't be created automatically), and you can specify multiple labels (normally Gmail allows only one label per filter).
  • forward: '[email protected]': forward the message to another email address. The forwarding address must be already in your settings (Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Add a forwarding address). Gmail allows no more than 20 forwarding filters. Only one address can be specified for one filter.

Example:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: { from: '[email protected]' },
      actions: {
        markImportant: true,
        category: 'personal',
        labels: ['family', 'P1'],
      },
    },
  ],
}

Labels

You can optionally manage your labels with gmailctl. The config contains a labels section. Adding labels in there will opt you in to full label management as well. If you prefer to manage your labels through the GMail web interface, you can by all means still do so by simply omitting the labels section from the config.

Example:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  // optional
  labels: [
    { name: 'family' },
    { name: 'friends' },
  ],
  rules: [
    {
      filter: { from: '[email protected]' },
      actions: {
        labels: ['family'],
      },
    },
  ],
}

To make this work, your credentials need to contain permissions for labels management as well. If you configured gmailctl before this functionality was available, you probably need to update your 'Scopes for Google API' in the 'OAuth content screen' by adding https://www.googleapis.com/auth/gmail.labels. If you don't know how to do this, just reset and re-create your credentials following the steps in:

$ gmailctl init --reset
$ gmailctl init

If you want to update your existing config to include your existing labels, the best way to get started is to use the download command and copy paste the labels field into your config:

$ gmailctl download > /tmp/cfg.jsonnet
$ gmailctl edit

After the import, verify that your current config does not contain unwanted changes with gmailctl diff.

Managing the color of a label is optional. If you specify it, it will be enforced; if you don't, the existing color will be left intact. This is useful to people who want to keep setting the colors with the Gmail UI. You can find the list of supported colors here.

Example:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  labels: [
    {
      name: 'family',
      color: {
        background: "#fad165",
        text: "#000000",
      },
    },
  ],
  rules: [ // ...
  ],
}

Note that renaming labels is not supported because there's no way to tell the difference between a rename and a deletion. This distinction is important because deleting a label and creating it with a new name would remove it from all the messages. This is a surprising behavior for some users, so it's currently gated by a confirmation prompt (for the edit command), or by the --remove-labels flag (for the apply command). If you want to rename a label, please do so through the GMail interface and then change your gmailctl config.

Tests

You can optionally add unit tests to your configuration. The tests will be executed before applying any changes to the upstream Gmail filters or by running the dedicated test subcommand. Tests results can be ignored by passing the --yolo command line option.

Tests can be added by using the tests field of the main configuration object:

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [ /* ... */ ],
  tests: [
    // you tests here.
  ],
}

A test object looks like this:

{
  // Reported when the test fails.
  name: "the name of the test",
  // A list of messages to test against.
  messages: [
    { /* message object */ },
    // ... more messages
  ],
  // The actions that should be applied to the messages, according the config.
  actions: {
    // Same as the Actions object in the filters.
  },
}

A message object is similar to a filter, but it doesn't allow arbitrary expressions, uses arrays of strings for certain fields (e.g. the to field), and has some additional fields (like body) to represent an email as faithfully as possible. This is the list of fields:

  • from: <string>: the sender of the email.
  • to: [<list>]: a list of recipients of the email.
  • cc: [<list>]: a list of emails in cc.
  • bcc: [<list>]: a list of emails in bcc.
  • lists: [<list>]: a list of mailing lists.
  • subject: <string>: the subject of the email.
  • body: <string>: the body of the email.

All the fields are optional. Remember that each message object represent one email and that the messages field of a test is an array of messages. A common mistake is to provide an array of messages thinking that they are only one. Example:

{
  // ...
  tests: [
    messages: [
      { from: "foobar" },
      { to: "me" },
    ],
    actions: {
      // ...
    },
  ],
}

This doesn't represent one message from "foobar" to "me", but two messages, one from "foobar" and the other to "me". The correct representation for that would be instead:

{
  // ...
  tests: [
    messages: [
      {
        from: "foobar",
        to: "me",
      },
    ],
    actions: {
      // ...
    },
  ],
}

NOTE: Not all filters are supported in tests. Arbitrary query expressions and filters with isEscaped: true are ignored by the tests. Warnings are generated when this happens. Keep in mind that in that case your tests might yield incorrect results.

Tips and tricks

Chain filtering

Gmail filters are all applied to a mail, if they match, in a non-specified order. So having some if-else alternative is pretty hard to encode by hand. For example sometimes you get interesting stuff from a mail list, but also a lot of garbage too. So, to put some emails with certain contents in one label and the rest somewhere else, you'd have to make multiple filters. Gmail filters however lack if-else constructs, so a way to simulate that is to declare a sequence of filters, where each one negates the previous alternatives.

For example you want to:

  • mark the email as important if directed to you;
  • or if it's coming from a list of favourite addresses, label as interesting;
  • of if it's directed to a certain alias, archive it.

Luckily you don't have to do that by hand, thanks to the utility library coming with gmailctl. There's a chainFilters function that does exactly that: takes a list of rules and chains them together, so if the first matches, the others are not applied, otherwise the second is checked, and so on...

// Import the standard library
local lib = import 'gmailctl.libsonnet';

local favourite = {
  or: [
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { list: '[email protected]' },
  ],
};

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
           // ... Other filters applied in any order
         ]

         // And a chain of filters
         + lib.chainFilters([
           // All directed emails will be marked as important
           {
             filter: { to: '[email protected]' },
             actions: { markImportant: true },
           },
           // Otherwise, if they come from interesting senders, apply a label
           {
             filter: favourite,
             actions: { labels: ['interesting'] },
           },
           // Otherwise, if they are directed to my spam alias, archive
           {
             filter: { to: '[email protected]' },
             actions: { archive: true },
           },
         ]),
}

To me

Gmail gives you the possibility to write literally to:me in a filter, to match incoming emails where you are the recipient. This is going to mostly work as intended, except that it will also match emails directed to [email protected]. The risk you are getting an email where you are not one of the recipients, but a [email protected] is, is pretty low, but if you are paranoid you might consider using your full email instead. The config is also easier to read in my opinion. You can also save some typing by introducing a local variable like this:

// Local variable, referenced in all your config.
local me = '[email protected]';

{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      // Save typing here.
      filter: { to: me },
      actions: {
        markImportant: true,
      },
    },
  ],
}

Directly to me

If you need to match emails that are to you directly, (i.e. you are not in CC, or BCC, but only in the TO field), then the default Gmail filter to: [email protected] is not what you are looking for. This filter in fact (surprisingly) matches all the recipient fields (TO, CC, BCC). To make this work the intended way we have to pull out this trick:

local directlyTo(recipient) = {
  and: [
    { to: recipient },
    { not: { cc: recipient } },
    { not: { bcc: recipient } },
  ],
};

So, from all emails where your mail is a recipient, we remove the ones where your mail is in the CC field.

This trick is conveniently provided by the gmailctl library, so you can use it for example in this way:

// Import the standard library
local lib = import 'gmailctl.libsonnet';
local me = '[email protected]';
{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: lib.directlyTo(me),
      actions: { markImportant: true },
    },
  ],
}

Automatic labels

If you opted in for labels management, you will find yourself often having to both add a filter and a label to your config. To alleviate this problem, you can use the utility function lib.rulesLabels provided with the gmailctl standard library. With that you can avoid providing the labels referenced by filters. They will be automatically added to the list of labels.

Example:

local lib = import 'gmailctl.libsonnet';
local rules = [
  {
    filter: { to: '[email protected]' },
    actions: { labels: ['directed'] },
  },
  {
    filter: { from: 'foobar' },
    actions: { labels: ['lists/foobar'] },
  },
  {
    filter: { list: 'baz' },
    actions: { labels: ['lists/baz', 'wow'] },
  },
];

// the config
{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: rules,
  labels: lib.rulesLabels(rules) + [{ name: l } for l in [
    'manual-label1',
    'priority',
    'priority/p1',
  ]],
}

The resulting list of labels will be:

labels: [
  // Automatically added
  { name: 'directed' },
  { name: 'lists' },            // Implied parent label
  { name: 'lists/baz' },
  { name: 'lists/foobar' },
  { name: 'wow' },
  // Manually added
  { name: 'manual-label1' },
  { name: 'priority' },
  { name: 'priority/p1' },
]

Note that there's no need to specify the label lists, because even if it's not used in any filter, it's the parent of a label that is used.

Things to keep in mind / gotchas:

  • Removing the last filter referencing a label will delete the label.
  • The only thing managed by the function is the list of labels names. You need to apply some transformations yourself if you want other properties (e.g. the color).
  • If you have labels that are not referenced by any filters (maybe archive labels, or labels applied manually). You have to remember to specify them manually in the list.

Thanks to legeana for the idea!

Multiple Gmail accounts

If you need to manage two or more accounts, it's useful to setup bash aliases this way:

alias gmailctlu1='gmailctl --config=$HOME/.gmailctlu1'
alias gmailctlu2='gmailctl --config=$HOME/.gmailctlu2'

You will then be able to configure both accounts separately by using one or the other alias.

Known issues

  • Apply filters to existing emails: gmailctl doesn't support this functionality for security reasons. The project currently needs only very basic permissisons, and applying filters to existing emails requires full Gmail access. Bugs in gmailctl or in your configuration won't screw up your old emails in any way, so this is an important safety feature. If you really want to do this, you can manually export your rules with gmailctl export > filters.xml, upload them by using the Gmail Settings UI and select the "apply new filters to existing email" checkbox.

Comparison with existing projects

gmail-britta has similar motivations and is quite popular. The difference between that project and this one are:

  • gmail-britta uses a custom DSL (versus Jsonnet in gmailctl)
  • gmail-britta is imperative because it allows you to write arbitrary Ruby code in your filters (versus pure declarative for gmailctl)
  • gmail-britta allows one to write complex chains of filters, but they feel very hardcoded and fails to provide easy ways to write reasonably easy filters 2.
  • gmail-britta exports only to the Gmail XML format. You have to import the filters yourself by using the Gmail web interface, manually delete the filters you updated and import only the new ones. This process becomes tedious very quickly and you will resort to quickly avoid using the tool when in a hurry. gmailctl provides you this possibility, but also allows you to review your changes and update the filters by using the Gmail APIs, without you having to do anything manually.
  • gmailctl tries to workaround certain limitations in Gmail (like applying multiple labels with the same filter) and provide a generic query language to Gmail, gmail-britta focuses on writing chain filtering and archiving in very few lines.

In short gmailctl takes the declarative approach to Gmail filters configuration, hoping it stays simpler to read and maintain, doesn't attempt to simplify complex scenarios with shortcuts (again, hoping the configuration becomes more readable) and provides automatic and fast updates to the filters that will save you time while you are iterating through new versions of your filters.

Footnotes

1: See Search operators you can use with Gmail .

2:

Try to write the equivalent of this filter with gmail-britta:

local spam = {
  or: [
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { subject: 'buy this' },
    { subject: 'buy that' },
  ],
};
{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: spam,
      actions: { delete: true },
    },
  ],
}

It becomes something like this:

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

# NOTE: This file requires the latest master (30/07/2018) of gmail-britta.
# The Ruby repos are not up to date

require 'rubygems'
require 'gmail-britta'

SPAM_EMAILS = %w{[email protected] [email protected]}
SPAM_SUBJECTS = ['"buy this"', '"buy my awesome product"']

puts(GmailBritta.filterset(:me => MY_EMAILS) do
       # Spam
       filter {
         has [{:or => "from:(#{SPAM_EMAILS.join("|")})"}]
         delete_it
       }
       filter {
         has [{:or => "subject:(#{SPAM_SUBJECTS.join("|")})"}]
         delete_it
       }
     end.generate)

Not the most readable configuration I would say. Note: You also have to make sure to quote the terms correctly when they contain spaces.

So what about nesting expressions?

local me = '[email protected]';
local spam = {
  or: [
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { from: '[email protected]' },
    { subject: 'buy this' },
    { subject: 'buy that' },
  ],
};
{
  version: 'v1alpha3',
  rules: [
    {
      filter: {
        and: [
          { to: me },
          { from: '[email protected]' },
          { not: spam },
        ],
      },
      actions: { delete: true },
    },
  ],
}

The reality is that you have to manually build the Gmail expressions yourself.


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