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What Is and Is Not Spam

Using the Report Spam button properly.

Understanding what is and is not spam is important to make sure you get what you want and improve spam filtering for everyone.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to use the Report Spam button, or its equivalent, in your email program.

It all boils down to answering the question: exactly what is spam?

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What is spam?

  • Spam is email you didn’t ask for.
  • Any email you did ask for is by definition not spam (unless you ask them to stop and they don’t).

Getting it right is important to make spam filters better, support mailers who are doing it right, and help everyone get the email they asked for.

Spam: email you didn’t ask for

Almost any email you didn’t ask for runs the risk of being classified as spam.

And yes, that could range from unsolicited sales pitches to email from people you don’t know trying to contact you for some legitimate purpose. All run the risk of being classified as spam.

Spam, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

I typically recommend hitting the “this is spam” button for the things you recognize instantly as spam: pornography, obvious scams, phishing attempts, getting added to mailing lists you’ve never heard of, and so on.

It gets dicier when it’s not obvious. Perhaps you get an email from a local retail store you’ve never done business with. Perhaps a friend keeps including you on their forwarded humor, or worse, political missives.

In my case, I get pitches all day long from people I’ve never heard of offering to write articles, pay for article placement, help improve my site’s SEO, or pitch me on some technology that will make all the difference to my business’s success.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, and I don’t feel one moment of remorse for marking them as spam. (Especially when it’s clearly templated email indicating they’ve never once looked at my site.)

Not spam: email you asked for

If you signed up for a newsletter and start receiving that newsletter as a result, that’s not spam.

Most email newsletters are what’s called “double opt-in”, meaning you have to say yes twice: once when fill in the sign-up form, and then again when you act on the confirmation mail asking if you really want to get that mailing.

Email you receive after asking for it and confirming that you want it is not spam by any reasonable definition. If you don’t like it, unsubscribe.

Similarly, if you purchase something from a company or otherwise enter into some kind of sales/business arrangement with them, the email they send you is not spam. It’s part of what you asked for: it’s part of the transaction and relationship.

Spam: email that keeps coming after you say no

In all these examples of “not spam” — email you asked for — there should be a way to unsubscribe. If you do that and the email continues to appear after some reasonable period1, then it’s spam.

You asked for it, and then you asked for it to stop. If it keeps coming, it’s spam.

And while I know it makes life more complicated, that first part is key:

  • If you asked for it, you should be able to ask for it to stop. Unsubscribe.
  • If you never asked for it, you should never try to unsubscribe. That acts as a signal to send you even more spam. Mark it as spam instead.

“Mark as spam” can hurt the innocent

Unfortunately, some users click the “this is spam” button on email they explicitly asked for.

This harms everyone involved.

It wasn’t spam, but you said it was. This harms the legitimate sender’s reputation. Services using that data to tune their spam filters may prevent other subscribers from getting the mail they asked for.

It can also backfire on you. In some cases, if a mailing system knows that you explicitly confirmed you wanted an email and then later mark it as spam, you may be blocked from signing up for any newsletters or other email provided by that service.2

Do this

Do your best to understand what is and is not spam. Educate those around you to use the tools appropriately. Unsolicited email is spam. Requested newsletter subscriptions are not.

And, yes, I realize it shouldn’t be this way — spam simply shouldn’t exist — but it does. We all have to learn how to deal with it properly.

This isn’t spam: Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: I’ll say 24 hours, even when the provider says it might take up to two weeks. There’s no justification for that anymore.

2: I believe that’s true for my newsletter. Since you had to double-opt-in to get it, marking it as spam will likely prevent you from ever signing up for any of my newsletters again. It may also prevent you from signing up for any newsletters from the service that handles sending my newsletter.

19 comments on “What Is and Is Not Spam”

  1. I feel you on this one. I used to do a small HTML e-zine for my Fraternity and it got to be a real hassle. People either do not know what spam is or do not care. I do a few different sites now and have no urge to do anything other than web feeds(RSS).
    It is unfortunate that so many falsely report such things. Unfortunately, I don’t think we will ever change it. My thought is to push for web feeds (RSS) more. They are opt in only. The unsubscribe button takes care of everything.

  2. What gets me is that you didn’t see this coming.
    Simply put, opting out of an email broadcast varies from one company to the next. Honestly, as an end user, I have better plans for my life than trying to sift through a message I didn’t want to begin with just to figure out how to make it stop.
    Case in point, CareerBuilder,, etc. At first I wanted those services to send email to me. Now, I’d rather they just stopped. However, I have to click through, enter some passwords I’ve already forgotten, and finally tell them I don’t want the mail anymore. Usually when I do that the sites say that it takes between 3 and 10 days to get off the list (which is crap). Of course, this is glossing over the fact that a number of sites wont bother to remove you.
    RSS has a definite advantage. I can sign up whenever I want and the interface for getting rid of it is the same regardless of the feed.
    Then again, for your newsletters, you could (god forbid) just post a new page to your website. If anyone is interested they can come back to visit.
    Because of all of this, I would recommend to the mail hosts out there to just kill any message that has been sent to more than about 10 people. This would make email what it was supposed to be in the first place: An easy form of personal communication; instead of a mass marketing tool.

  3. Why don;t you cry me a river with your precious newsletters that no one reads anyway. Even if people read ’em anyway, they will be deleted after the first reading. Podcasts and RSS feeds are a far better method than written newsletters.

  4. People ask for them and then don’t read them? Sure hasn’t been my experience so far.
    The sad part is that people missusing the spam button are impacting the people that actually WANT the newsletters. And I’m most certainly NOT talking just about my newsletter. This is an industry-wide issue.
    Your attitude aside, it’s worth pointing out that the my full newsletter can be received by RSS at

  5. Well “hehe”, of course you are entitled to your opinion (as everybody is), i.e. in particular, you can like or dislike Leo’s newsletter. However, the reason that I am posting this comment (as a reply to yours) is that your have completely missed the topic’s subject. I mean even if “they will be deleted after the first reading” and even if “Podcasts and RSS feeds are a far better method than written newsletters”, please, explain what has this to do with the original subject in regard to what’s spam and what is not a spam.

    So it’s quite simple; I can say without any doubt that you are just trolling. Get it ??

    best regards,
    Ivan Tadej, Slovenija, Europe

  6. “Podcasts and RSS feeds are a far better method than written newsletters.”
    …in your (aparently not so humble) opinion.
    I much prefer written articles to a audible or video version. I can read and understand it faster than waiting for someone to read it to me. I can also jump back and forth in it.

  7. My spam handling rules are very simple. If I subscribe to an email sender’s service, it’s NOT spam (see the note below). ANY email from senders I don’t recognize IS spam.

    Note: When I sign up for any emailing/newsletter, I create a sub-folder under my inbox (somewhere in my email client’s storage folder system). When I receive an email from any known sender, when I’m finished with it I move it from the Inbox to it’s folder to keep things easier to deal with.

    If I receive an email from a sender I don’t recognize and I don’t have a folder for the sender, I mark it as spam (see – simple).

    If I unsubscribe from an email, I edit it’s folder’s name with the date after which the provider said I would no longer receive messages. After that date, if I continue to receive messages (even one) from that sender, I mark them as spam and I remove/delete the associated folder because I no longer want to store any messages from that sender.

    As one of my annual system maintenance routines, I go through my email folder system to determine whether I want to continue receiving messages from all those senders. For any sender from whom I no longer want to receive messages, I unsubscribe following my rules as listed above (marking their folder with the date after which they will no longer send me messages, then after that date I regard anything from them as spam).

    My ‘system’ requires a bit of extra effort, but in the long run it keeps my email store pertinent to what I consider important/useful while removing anything I don’t. These are the things I do to make managing my email as easy as possible. What your needs are probably different. I suggest you develop a system that works for you, perhaps using some of the ideas I present here.

    In any case, I hope this helps others,

    Ernie (Oldster)

  8. Duh said,
    “… I would recommend to the mail hosts out there to just kill any message that has been sent to more than about 10 people. This would make email what it was supposed to be in the first place: An easy form of personal communication; instead of a mass marketing tool.”

    This would put all internet news sites and many legitimate other businesses out of business. Consider the local supermarket which emails its weekly flyer to hundreds of opted-in customers. Or Newsmax, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc. whose mailing list numbers in the hundreds of thousands, not to mention the various blogs, political and otherwise. What you propose is unworkable.

    Making email what it was originally supposed to be would restrict it to a few STEM professors and graduate students in ivy league universities.

    • So newsletters, including my own, do NOT use BCC. They send individual emails. Rather than sending 1 email to 1,000 people, they send 1,000 emails one at a time. (When you think about it, it’s the only way they can personalize each message by, say, greeting you by name.)

      As it turns out many email providers do exactly as suggested: if you include too many recipients the email will fail to send.

      Spammers, unfortunately, do both: single emails to many, and many emails to individuals.

  9. I don’t know about “Duh”, but I’d rather use my brain and actually read an article. I have pages of your newsletter saved. I like the opportunity to go back and re-read what I didn’t have time to read the first time. In this “get it done yesterday” world we live in, I find enjoyment in READING articles, now RSS is fine, but it still goes back to having a hard copy to refer to. How many times does the RSS feed crash? As far as spam, as often as I get aggravated at my ISP, it has a wonderful spam filter built right in to the service. Not to mention my browser, with all the “add-ons” offered, my SPAM has dramatically decreased, as well as the hidden “tracker blockers.” I guess that reading is too hard for some people!

  10. Okay, allow me to re-phrase my original comment. My ISP has a great spam blocker built in. I still enjoy reading. I have pages and pages of your newsletter saved in a separate folder, allowing me to go back and re-read the article. There is a delicate balance between what is spam, and what is not. I agree. The point is, READ! If you didn’t ask for it, it’s spam. I won’t mention the name of a certain browser, but since switching to another browser, my spam has dramatically decreased!

  11. I was amused to find that the spam filter in my email client, (Pegasus – I am really old-fashioned), filtered your posting into the spam folder. (And I even know why – it was labelled “spam” in the subject.)

  12. This one bothers me on some instances where you sign up for something like a pdf. Along the way to accepting the download and their advertising email is a small print statement, “emails from our other associates” but they do not leave a checkbox to refuse. In order to “pay for your PDF book”, you are “forced” to accept those emails. Thus, you cannot mark them as spam even though you signed for them but you did not want them.


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