AOL Claims Progress in Spam War

America Online reported a number of successes in its fight against unsolicited bulk email, crediting subscriber use of the “report spam” button that’s caused some consternation in the email marketing community.

Every day, AOL blocks 22 spam email messages, on average, from reaching a subscriber’s in-box. That totals up to 780 million blocked messages a day for AOL’s 27 million members in the United States.

The AOL Time Warner unit credited its proprietary anti-spam filtering technology for its success, saying the service’s “report spam” button has been a driving force. Each day, AOL members use the button 4.1 million times to report spam to the company.

The button, introduced with AOL 8.0 in October, has been controversial with email marketers, who say recipients often use it haphazardly, resulting in marketers getting unfairly tagged as spammers. Since the button was introduced last October, AOL said spam reports have increased from 200,000 a day to 2 million in December to the present 4.1 million daily pace.

Just this week, AOL put its “report spam” button on its Web-based email, promising even more spam reports.

“The problem occurs that within the AOL system you can hit a threshold and that triggers more broad filtering,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative’s email service provider coalition. “We are looking forward to working with AOL to address that concern.”

When a user hits the “report spam” button, he is automatically blocked from receiving email from that mailing address again. In addition, a complaint is sent to AOL, which sorts them to find spammers. E-mail marketers can develop a pre-existing relationship with AOL by agreeing to abide by certain principles, such as having a valid unsubscribe option. Each of these pre-screened certain threshold of complaints to reach before AOL looks into taking action against them.

“One person’s spam might not be someone else’s spam,” said AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham.

AOL’s systems differs from rival MSN, which put the energies of its MSN 8 anti-spam efforts into giving users the technical means to guard their own in-boxes. First, mail passes through MSN’s server-side filter from Brightmail, which seeks out spammers by deploying thousands of dummy email addresses. Then, instead of a “report as spam” button, MSN 8 features a “junk mail” button that allows a user to designate mail as junk, adjusting the algorithm to make the user’s junk filter learn what he considers junk.

Anna Zornosa, the chief executive of email marketing company Topica, said the “report as spam” button posed a number of problems for marketers. Often, she said, recipients will simply use the button as an “unsubscribe” mechanism, flooding AOL with false reports of spam.

“It is definitely being used more broadly than AOL intended it to be used,” she said. “We have people hitting it to unsubscribe.”

Graham acknowledged that a number of spam complaints the company receives are invalid. AOL has set up a system to combat this, sorting the spam complaints to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate and having a dedicated team that judges whether an email marketer is spamming.

“Protecting our members from spam and meeting the concerns and needs of retailers are not mutually exclusive by any means,” Graham said.

With 26.5 million U.S. subscribers, AOL’s policies have a disproportionate effect on email marketers. Earlier this month, Assurance Systems released the results of a study assessing the delivery failure rates of email campaigns at top ISPs. AOL ranked No. 3 with an 18 percent failure rate.

Zornosa said AOL’s anti-spam efforts were “commendable” and that the company has been responsive to Topica’s concerns.

“We know what our threshold is and we can work with AOL to manage it,” she said. “While they’re using it as a data point, it is not being used as an automated trigger.”

She said the problem of spam was so complex that email marketers needed to be proactive in adjusting to the new realities of stringent spam filters. Topica’s clients are advised on how to avoid clumsy subject lines that might cause a recipient to think the email is spam.

“It’s a blunt instrument,” she said. “But the way that AOL is actually implementing it is not leading to the loss of wanted mail.”

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