Yahoo! Offers New Weapons In Anti-Spam Arsenal

Yahoo Tuesday added significant new spam-fighting features to the paid version of its mail service, in an effort to hold onto subscribers and attract new ones.

Yahoo is following in the footsteps of America Online and MSN, which each released upgraded spam-fighting features in the most recent versions of their Internet access software. It also comes as Microsoft releases Outlook 2003, which is expected to contain new spam-blocking features.

“Our new personalized tools continue to not only improve our overall ability to cut back on spam, they also empower users to take direct action, according to their personal needs and habits,” said Brad Garlinghouse, vice president of Yahoo’s communication products.

All these new products, designed to improve the user experience, will likely give email marketers headaches, as they struggle to ensure their messages are delivered.

Yahoo’s new features, which include tools called SpamGuard Plus and AddressGuard, give users several ways to combat unwanted email. They will automatically be bundled with the Yahoo Mail Plus paid email product, for which Yahoo charges $29.99 annually. They’ll also likely be a part of how Yahoo markets the Mail Plus service to its existing free email users. Yahoo didn’t say how many paying email subscribers it has, but, in its last earnings conference call, said it had 4.2 million paying customers. That number also includes users of services like Internet access, content, and small business products.

The most unusual of the new tools, AddressGuard, allows users to establish substitute “decoy” email addresses that they can provide to suspect senders, and then abandon should they begin to receive spam at those addresses. They could, for example, set up one address for online dating, and another for e-commerce transactions. All of the addresses can be managed within the main Yahoo mail account. Users can create up to 500 disposable email addresses.

The feature aims to quell the fears of people who are afraid to give out their primary email address for fear of getting spam. A recent Yahoo survey of its mail users found that 45 percent of respondents were not comfortable giving out their primary email addresses when purchasing products online, and 72 percent weren’t comfortable giving out their primary email addresses when joining an online community.

“If users start getting messages they don’t want to receive, they can turn off the address,” said Miles Libbey, anti-spam product manager for Yahoo Mail. “All legitimate marketers have tools and processes in place to pay attention to bounces. If I give out an address to a legitimate marketer and then turn it off, the messages to me would start bouncing and the marketer would remove me from the list.”

The “decoy” system is not new, although Yahoo is the first of the bigger email providers to adopt it. Companies like Mailshell and Mailblocks have offered similar features for some time.

The second tool, SpamGuard Plus, adds personalized filtering to Yahoo’s SpamGuard system. Previously, when users reported receiving spam in their Yahoo accounts, the company used the information to better develop filtering for all email recipients. Now, the information goes toward learning what the reporting individual believes is spam, and what he perceives as wanted mail. Yahoo then uses that information to better filter that person’s individual mailbox.

Libbey said that the feature could help marketers whose messages consumers truly want, because, instead of automatically sending certain kinds of messages to the spam folder, it would allow users to decide for themselves what is spam. “Different users have different perspectives on what spam is,” Libbey said. “By giving users control in SpamGuard Plus, we create a tailor-made filter just for that person. So, we have very aligned goals with marketing folks. We want to make sure messages that users want and value are delivered to the right place.”

Yahoo also promises to provide users with new views of their inboxes, including a feature to let them sort by whether a sender is in their address book or not. The company says that feature, called Message Views, is coming soon.

“This is a way to highlight messages from people in the Yahoo address book, which generally have a high level of trust. Any message coming from someone in your address book, we make sure it’s delivered to the inbox,” said Libbey. “So marketers should encourage customers to add them to their address books, to ensure that their messages arrive.”

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