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September 2004

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Email in Limbo

by Glen Emerson Morris

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When email first started taking off about a decade ago it seemed like it could be the perfect replacement for direct mail. After all, email was nearly free, offered close to instantaneous delivery, and it allowed color graphics at no additional cost. Now, those very qualities are compromising its reliability.

The problem is that the daily volume of spam, or unsolicited email, on the Internet has become so huge that the defensive measures Internet service providers have had to take are shooting down an estimated 20% of all legitimate opt-in email on the Internet. And the problem is going to get a lot worse before it's over.

Spam now accounts for up to 82% of all email on the Internet, and it may account for over 95% of all email by next summer.

A technological solution to spam is probably two years away at best. Whatever the final solution is, it will almost certainly involve some kind of authentication, or verifying that the email is really coming from the address it is claiming to. Most spammers modify the spam email so it seems to come from a different server than it does.

Until a technological fix to spam is developed, advertisers wanting to send email promos, newsletters or account information to their customers face a daunting challenge. Any email they send faces several different possible deaths on the Internet.

One of the most popular Web servers available, Apache. Now comes with an anti-spam component called SpamAssassin. It is a highly intelligent and adaptive spam filter that can be set to provide varying degrees of protection. This means that it is nearly impossible for anyone to determine the probability of any particular piece of email making it through any particular Apache server. According to a recent report, about half of all corporations using Apache servers set the anti-spam filter to stricter settings than the default settings.

Internet mail services like Yahoo! and Hotmail have sophisticated anti-spam filters built into their sites, and they also include customizable spam filters in the email client applications they provide through their free and subscription mail services.

Individual users also have the option of installing a separate spam filter on their computers, like Norton Anti-Spam. It also allows the user to customize how strict the settings are. To make matters worse, there are over 130 anti-spam applications on the market now, and the market is growing.

The stricter the anti-spam settings are on spam filters, the more likely that valid email is going to be classified as a false positive. One ISP reported that by reducing the spam rate 1% they found that the false positive rate increased 10,000%.

At this point, getting email to customers through these obstacles is more of an art than a science. However, there are several services that can help improve email delivery rates.

One of the short term solutions to spam is the creation of trusted whitelists, which anti-spam filters can check email with. A whitelist is essentially the opposite of a blacklist. Rather than provide a list of known spammer addresses, like a blacklist does, a whitelist provides a list of emailer addresses known to be legitimate. Blacklists haven't proven to be very effective because spammers change their addresses frequently.

Currently there are two primary whitelisting services. One of them,, makes its customers post a bond and promise to meet strict anti-spam guidelines. If a customer fails to do this, a fine is deducted from their bond (and given away, to avoid conflict of interest issues). Bonded Senders isn't cheap though. Large volume emailers can expect to pay in the neighborhood of $12,000.00 for their service. The other service,, certifies businesses on the basis of whether they can legitimately include a trademark in their email. Spammers rarely include trademarks in their email because it makes them vulnerable to being sued by the actual trademark owners.

Another option for legitimate mailers is to run their email through a spam rating service that will tell them how likely their email is to be classified as spam and why. At the inexpensive end of the spectrum there's a free service, called SpamCheck. at You send an email to their site and a few minutes latter they send you back an email giving a spam rating to your email. The higher the rating, the more likely the email will be classified as spam.

For emailers with a major budget there's a company named Return Path. They provide a number of services., including an analysis of your email and counseling about how to get on various whitelists. Return Path also provides an accurate estimate of how much of your email is actually getting delivered. They seed your mailing lists with addresses that route your email through a variety of mail servers and track the results.

For companies with a smaller budget there's the do it yourself option. Install a Linux server running Apache on your office network and see what happens to email you send email through it as you adjust the SpamAssassin settings. Also, you can install Norton Anti-Spam on a local computer and track the effects its settings can have on your email.

The lowest cost approach is to do a Google search on the subject to find articles that explain the most common reasons email is classified as spam and how to avoid them. With some practice you can significantly improve your email delivery rate just by making minor changes to your email.

None of these solutions is painless, but neither is a 20% email delivery failure rate. And the failure rate can only continue to rise for the next year or two. The techniques required to spam on the scale of millions of emails a day are becoming common knowledge. The only hope legitimate emailers have in the short term is learning how to avoid anti-spam defenses faster than their opponents. It's going to be a close race, and a race our industry can't afford to loose.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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