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  1. I often can't find my sent mail in my Gmail account viewed on my Mac in Apple Mail. I did not set up these folders, but I have both a "Sent Mail" folder indented under a "Gmail" folder and a "Sent Messages (gmail [accountname])" folder in my Gmail account in Apple Mail. Sometimes a sent messages shows up in neither of those, but I can find it by searching for it.

  2. Some incoming messages do not appear in my Inbox, but are in a box I did not set up labeled "Important."

How do I set the Gmail settings and filters to avoid these two problems?

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Besides Google's "official" guide to configure GMail with a desktop client (see Wheat Williams' answer) I think this guide is pretty good and helpful:

It' a detailed step-by-step guide an features several screenshots.

Regarding the sent messages (your first point):

"Select the [Gmail] -> Sent Mail subfolder and choose Mailbox -> Use This Mailbox For -> Sent"

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I have been looking for something like this for very long, thank you. – reg Nov 29 '11 at 18:20
The correct link is – lhf Sep 19 '12 at 19:57
Please just edit the question - everyone can edit things and should when they can correct something or make an answer better. – bmike Sep 19 '12 at 20:00

Are you using POP or IMAP?

Google GMail has help documents for that that.

POP configuration

IMAP configuration

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