May 2, 2005

AOL Flagging Weather Alerts as SPAM

AOL has to process so much SPAM (2.2 million complaints daily), they’re constantly evolving their filters and rules to block it from its users. Spammers, in turn, constantly evolve their tactics to slip past the filters.

In the midst of this ongoing battle, innocent email servers become collateral damage.

This happens a lot more often than you’d think. Below is a case of AOL blocking severe weather alerts in Florida. Subscribers weren’t getting their email alerts about impending hurricanes and storms.

One of the topics raised in the discussion is the idea that lots of AOL users actually report legitimate email as "spam" even though they specifically opted-in for it.

It doesn’t help that AOL has a big "This is spam" link on their email application that makes it REALLY easy for its users to report messages as spam (according to Jupiter, about 13% do this, even if they opted in).

Why would people report messages as spam, even though they opted in for them? Here are some explanations from an enlightened poster…


Why do people mark messages as spam that they willingly signed up for?

Several reasons. One is that the AOL user interface is pretty bad and it’s easy to hit the button by accident.

Another is that people tend to select large swathes of messages in their inbox and mark them as spam in bulk, often mixing in the occasional legitimate email in the spam.

Another is that senders often don’t make it clear enough who their email is from and the recipient clicks the This-Is-Spam button before they register that they really wanted it.

Another is that many people use the This-Is-Spam button as an Unsubscribe button, and click it when they don’t want the email any more, rather than unsubscribing from the mailing list they signed up for. SpamCop gets used this way too.

(This all may or may not be related to the reason the mail was filed in the bulk folder, though. It was bulk email, the recipients hadn’t whitelisted it… it’s something of a crapshoot whether it’ll get flagged as bulk in that case).

The takeaway here is that when you’re sending email newsletters to your customers, you’ve got to make sure it’s always easy for people to click your unsubscribe link. Otherwise, they’ll click the "this is spam" link instead, and ALL your emails will be blocked, not just one.