Are you sure it's broken?

This press release suggests that the "report spam" button (found in common email interfaces like AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) is broken.

Good senders (send mail people want, don't send unwanted mail, set clear expectations in regard to all aspects of email sending) get few "report spam" complaints.

Bad senders (who don't have permission, send too much, don't care about what their subscribers want, hide mailing expectations in privacy policies) get many "report spam" complaints.

There's a reason why ISPs measure based on this data. Because it works. Draw a line between "high complaints" and "low complaints" and you're accurately drawing a line between "wanted mail" and "unwanted mail."

Is it any surprise that ISPs leverage this data to paint an accurate picture of good mail versus bad mail, and decide mail delivery or rejection policies accordingly?

Q Interactive calls this a bug. I call it a feature.


  1. It's broken because people use it incorrectly. Our feed from AOL gave us about 500 messages a day regarding our customers. In a six month timeframe 18 messages total have actually been spam generated by hacked systems.

    The vast majority of the mail AOL users mark Spam is

    1. Purchase confirmations
    2. Confirmation of shipment of an order
    3. Opt-in, double-confirm mailing list traffic
    4. Weekly/monthly reports sent to a vendor about their account
    5. Personal messages from someone's mom asking about dinner plans

    We have worked with clients to track down some users who report a lot of spam, and the user admitted that they use the SPAM button to delete mail they have read from their mailbox.

    I can't speak to any other service, but AOL's feedback channel is useless because of this misreporting.

  2. Actually, that's all wrong. That isn't what the vast majority of users report as spam using the AOL "this is spam" button. Wrong data leads to wrong conclusions.

    I actually work with people at AOL regularly. I work for an ESP, where I guide people through stuff like this all the time, and I know how it works.

    AOL gets a gazillion reports about a gazillion bad things. Sure, goobers randomly report stuff they don't want as spam. That's why low levels of spam reports don't make AOL block you -- you have to rise above thresholds and really be a problem sender.

    BTW, that 500 messages a day you see is orders of magnitude smaller than what I see in a day, and what I see is even more orders of magnitude smaller than what AOL sees.

    Don't kid yourself. AOL does this because it works well for them.

  3. Jo's comment is common among senders who do everything (or almost everything) the right way: if you aren't doing things that piss off your recipients, they'll only complain about stuff by mistake.

    This does not, however, mean that most complaints are mistaken. This study simply didn't have access to the vast majority of complaints, which are about the kind of messages that everyone would agree are pure spam.

    As Al wrote, "Wrong data leads to wrong conclusions." This is particularly pernicious when the incorrect conclusion is something that a particular group really, really wishes were true.

    The sending community seems unable to grasp that complaints are not -- and have never been -- the only metric used to determine sending reputation. They're an important metric, to be sure, but there's a lot more involved when an ISP is trying to block the mail their users won't want and accept the mail their users will be delighted by.


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.