Email newsletters and discussion groups are a staple of the internet. From technical issues to social clubs to formal publications distributed by email, the email mailing list is a critical component of how we conduct business, socialize, and interact online.
Unfortunately, it’s also the backbone for spam, and therein lies a problem.
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- Legitimate email is occasionally erroneously filtered as spam.
- Determining what spam is, based on analyzing both its content and source, is complicated.
- Check your spam folder periodically.
- Whitelist known good senders.
- Use the Spam/Not Spam buttons in your email interface properly.
Spam, spam, and more spam
A previous article, “Why Is My Mail to this Person Not Getting Through?“, discussed this issue from the sender’s side. As I outlined there, spam prevention measures frequently block legitimate email from reaching its destination.
Most commonly, erroneously filtered email is placed in the recipient’s “spam” or “junk” folder. Unfortunately, that means they may never see it unless they periodically check for these “false positives”. In rarer cases, spam-filtered email is simply lost or even returned to the sender (a.k.a. “bounced”).
There isn’t a discussion or email list that doesn’t suffer from some amount of email being erroneously flagged as spam and lost in some way.
What makes spam spam?
Of course, you didn’t sign up for spam, and it’s unlikely the email newsletter or discussion group you joined is intentionally sending spam. So why are messages flagged as spam?
There are two basic criteria.
Content. Mail that explicitly talks about things that are commonly (or currently) being hawked by spammers are likely to be flagged as spam. Certainly email including an attachment containing malware is more likely to be flagged as spam. These are all fairly explicit, albeit undefined, criteria — either your message meets the criteria and “looks like” spam or it does not. Complicating this, of course, is that there is no single reference for what “spammy” content might be. Some email providers flag things as spam that others do not.
Reputation. In recent years, this has become important criteria when evaluating whether or not an email message is or is not spam. The sender (the “From:” line, or the source listed in the headers of email, which you don’t normally see), as well as the email service used to send the email, develop a reputation. The more times people click on “This is spam” to messages you send, for example, the worse your reputation becomes, and the harder it is for you to get your messages delivered.
Other than watching what you say and how you say it on a discussion list, most of this is entirely out of your control as a recipient. The email you signed up for will contain whatever its originator wants, and it will be sent from the originator’s chosen email service.
Steps you can take
There are several things you can do to help.
Whitelist. For anything important, look to your email service provider’s whitelist capabilities. Most providers, like Outlook.com, Gmail, and others, allow you to specify that email coming from specific email addresses (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) or email domains (e.g. any email address from askleo.com) should never be flagged as spam. Take care to look for the whitelist in the same place as the spam filter, though. If it’s your desktop email program that’s filtering spam, it’s the whitelist there you need to configure.
Check the spam folder. Most spam filters move suspected spam to a junk mail or spam folder. Check it every so often for legitimate mail and use that opportunity to whitelist any that was mistakenly filtered. I periodically scan my spam folder — not in any time-consuming depth, just a quick scan — for emails placed there erroneously.
Use the “Not Spam” button. If you find legitimate email in your spam folder and your email interface has this ability, make sure to mark it as “Not Spam”. Spam filters learn from what you tell them. The more often you point out its mistakes, the less likely it is to make them in the future. You may need to do this several times across several messages.
DO NOT “Report as Spam” any email you requested. That is not the proper way to unsubscribe. Legitimate publications get blocked because people use the Spam button to unsubscribe, rather than by using the “unsubscribe” link in the email. This harms the publisher and other subscribers of that newsletter.
Gmail users, beware
Gmail has a fine spam filter, but their “tabbed inbox” feature, which attempts to categorize your incoming email for you, seems less than accurate. I’m convinced that Gmail’s miss-categorization of email messages is another reason Gmail users may often miss or overlook email that they’ve received.
I recommend you turn this feature off. How Do I Get Rid of Gmail Tabs? shows you how.