Google Contacts Sync for Mac and iOS

As we mentioned in Google Calendar Sync for Mac and iOS, we’re covering three ways to replace the syncing capabilities of MobileMe with Google Sync. With this part of the series, we’ll demonstrate contact syncing from your Gmail contacts, to your Mac’s Address Book, to your iOS device and back. This process will allow you to wirelessly sync contacts just like MobileMe… but for free.

Don’t get ahead of us as you could easily do something that will nuke your contacts during this process. Make sure you sync your iPhone to your computer one last time before we do this so you know that your Address Book contacts are up to date.

This is a completely “clean” way of syncing contacts with Google, you could very easily just turn on syncing and see what you get, but this guide will make your life a lot easier. If you have a lot of contacts, you may want to set aside a couple hours for this project as it’s very in-depth and definitely not something you’ll want to rush. Please continue reading the article for the full instructions.

Address Book Backup

The first thing we need to do is get all of your contacts into a VCard. That’s going to be our backup… if anything goes wrong, you’ll be able to re-import that VCard into your Address Book and recover your contacts.

  • Open Address Book
  • Click the “All Contacts” group on the left
  • Select all of the entries in the list (click a contact and the press command+a)
  • Click “File” in the top menu bar, then “Export,” then “Export VCard…”
  • Save that file to your desktop

Cleaning Up Your Contacts

To ensure that your contacts don’t start duplicating themselves every time they sync, we need to make sure that every record is “clean” and sync-able.

Whether MobileMe or Gmail, syncing contacts does not play well with the Apple’s Sync Services. I have yet to determine if the problem lies in Address Book, the Mac OS or if it’s just a downfall of syncing in general. This is gruesome… in fact it’s downright tiring if you do it manually. At the end of this section, I’ll offer you an alternative, but at least read what you need to do.

The only way to prevent duplication of records is to clean out any odd characters from every, individual contact record.

For example, if you have a contact record that has “Bill & Mary” as the first name and “Smith” as the last name, you’ll need to separate that record into two individual records or just Make it “Bill Smith” and put “Spouse: Mary” in the notes.

I’ve even seen odd spaces cause issues with record duplication. The best way I can put it is this: each record should have a first name and a last name…. one word per field, no spaces, no odd characters, just letters.

What happens if I don’t clean up my records? This bug duplicates any records with multiple names, extra symbols or other weird characters each and every time you sync. Since sync works in the background on your computer, you may not notice it until you end up with 15 or more records for a single contact.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can skip the cleaning process and fix any problem contact records later. If you start seeing duplication, there’s something funny with that contact. Try to get rid of any odd characters or spaces. In the worst-case scenario, delete the contact and recreate it.

For the lazy people in the audience, Google offers a “Merge Duplicates” utility in the contacts section of Gmail. If you don’t want to take the time to clean your contacts, you could just run that every now and then. That’s not a good choice for the long haul, but it’s a viable temporary solution.

You’ll also want to remove any custom labels you’ve added in Address Book because your iOS devices won’t know how to parse that information when sync’d with Google.

For example, if you’ve labeled a phone number “Josh’s Cell,” or “iPhone,” that number may not sync to your iOS device from Google. Custom labels sync just fine between the Mac and Google, but that specific field may not make it to your iOS device. The contact record syncs just fine, but a phone number labeled “iPhone” may not show up. We recommend using the default labels provided in Address Book like “Work,” “Home,” or “Mobile.”

Since you have a backup, you can also try Contacts Cleaner (App Store Link) by the creative minds of Spanning Sync. Their cleaning tool claims to clean each problem record for you by removing duplicate contacts and fields, fixing invalid characters and poorly-formatted contact names, phone numbers… hmm, that sounds familiar. It’s $4.99 in the Mac App Store so it may be worth your while. Use it at your own risk, we’re just offering it as a more efficient alternative to the manual option.

Once your contacts are clean, follow the original steps to export another VCard so that you have an archive of the clean contacts. Save it as a different name so you have both the old archive and the new “cleaned” archive.

Adding Your Contacts to Google

We’ll just assume that you already have a Gmail account since you’ve come this far… go ahead and sign in. There are three options for working with your Google contacts as this point:

  • Organize any contacts found in your Gmail account
  • Delete all Google contacts and rely on your Address Book
  • Import the Address Book contacts and deal with organization later

I chose to go delete all of my Google contacts because my Address Book had everything important. Once you’ve made that decision, you’ll be ready to import your contacts into Google. In the Gmail interface, do the following:

  • Click “Contacts”
  • Click “Import Contacts”
  • Select the new, cleaned VCard
  • Click “Import”

That will get all of your up-to-date contacts into Google. Now we can start connecting your devices to Google.

Configuring Address Book for Google Contact Sync

We know it may sound strange, but you’ll want to delete everything from Address Book once you’ve verified your contacts are correct on Google (You should have two backup files in case anything goes wrong). We’ll be pulling all of your contacts down from the cloud via Google Sync, so we don’t need the current records in Address Book. Once you delete the contacts from Address Book, you’re ready to setup Google Sync:

  • Click “Address Book” in the top menu bar then “Preferences”
  • Click the “Accounts” tab
  • Check the box next to “Synchronize with Google”
  • Sign into your Google Account

In a matter of seconds, you’ll see your Google contacts show up in Address Book. This process also adds the Sync Services arrows to your top menu bar (it’s near your clock). You can force the computer to sync if you’ve just made a lot of changes, or you can just let it sync as scheduled. By default, the arrows reference MobileMe, but they’re responsible for Google Sync as well.

Configuring iOS for Google Contact Sync

We’re actually going to use Google’s Exchange implementation to sync Contacts to iOS. The process is the same for the iPhone, iPod touch and the iPad.

  • Tap into the Settings app
  • Tap “Mail, Contacts, Calendars”
  • Tap “Add Account”
  • Tap “Exchange”
  • Enter your Gmail address
  • Leave “Domain” blank
  • Enter your username: again, your Gmail address
  • Enter your password
  • Enter a Description: Google Contacts

If you’re new to Google Sync and haven’t read our whole walkthrough, you may feel tempted to just turn on Mail, Contacts and Calendars right from this next screen… we’d strongly discourage you from doing so because you’ll lose a lot of functionality by using the Exchange for Calendars and Mail. Make sure that Contacts are on, that Calendars and Mail are off. See our Calendar and Mail articles for more information.

Once you turn the contact syncing on, you’ll notice that your phone wants to know if it should delete all of your old contacts. If you’ve followed every step of this guide, you should be free to do that without any hesitation.

If you didn’t follow the guide… we wish you luck.

Feel free to let it delete all of the old contacts. Now go to your contacts and watch them sync from Google onto your iOS device. As we mentioned earlier — if you had custom labels on phone numbers or other important fields, you may not see that information sync to your phone.

You should now be syncing your Contacts with Google, Address Book and your iOS device. We’ve outlined any issues we’ve found (odd characters and custom labels) but if you find any more, we’d love to hear about them in the comments. If you have any questions about these articles don’t be afraid to ask. We’ll do our best to help you find a solution.

Don’t forget about the rest of Google Sync series:

Google Calendar Sync for Mac and iOS

Configure a Gmail account for Mac and iOS

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