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May 11, 2007

"Unsubscribe" Dynamics

I'm looking for advice on prudent use of the Unsubscribe button on commercial spam.

As does everyone these days, I get a lot of spam (and that, even though, here at Mayfield, we have deployed every anti-spam technology known to man).  Increasingly (and thankfully), the type of spam is "high-class" commercial spam:  e.g., emails from Investment Banks announcing their deals, conference promoters urging me to sign up for their conference, law firms announcing a seminar for VC's, etc.  I don't get as many Viagra ads anymore, thanks to our great IT staff.

Withing the category of "high class", however, spammers still are arrayed over a bell curve of "quality".

Most of the spam that makes it through these days has a way to "Unsubscribe".  Over the last couple of years, during which the Unsubscribe button became more widespread, I have oscillated wildly in my usage of this feature. Most of the time, I've not used it for fear that hitting the Unsubscribe button not only didn't "unsubscribe" one, but actually confirmed  back to the spammer that yours was a live email address  -- and ensured one would receive even more spam as an (inadvertently) verified email user.

Most recently, I've adopted the (somewhat unsystematic) rule that (1) I hit unsubscribe if the brand of the sender seems "OK" (not sure what that means exactly), and (2) if the sender seems at all sketchy, I just delete the email.

This is, I'm sure, about as effective as burning incense to stop spam, but it's all I've had to go on, so I do it as sort of a quasi-religious exercise every day.

I would love to hear from folks who understand how the "Unsubscribe" world works, so my "religion" could become more "scientific".

May 11, 2007 | Permalink


I've found the simplest way to deal with recurring commercial spam is apply a filter that deletes all further emails from that sender so I don't even see it. I've found that even if there is an unsubscribe link, it can be a real chore to follow the unsub procedure on their site, even if it's legitimate. I don't have time to jump thru their hoops, so nuking any further emails from them seems the easiest way for me. I've yet to lose any important email with this method. Gmail filters are super easy to set up, but Outlook et al are simple too.

Posted by: Chris Mitchell | May 11, 2007 12:49:03 PM

I'm the CEO at Habeas and we are in the business of email reputation (we act as a credit bureau for email - rating internet email on it's trustworthiness and providing "credit repair and rating" information to our 400 customers who are commercial senders of opt-in email) so I have a thing or two to say on the topic.

1. The federal anti-spam law, CAN SPAM, specifies that senders must have a working unsubscribe mechanism and must honor unsubscribe requests within 10 business days.

2. Commercial b2c opt-in email senders, especially any recognizable brand, are good about honoring CAN SPAM and unsubscribe requests. If they don't, they are subject to excessive consumer complaints (e.g., the "this is spam" button in your favorite webmail like Yahoo or Hotmail)which result in the sender having a poor "reputation" and their inbound email gets blocked by the top tier ISPs that make up 60-80% of their lists. So there is both a legal as well as business driver to comply.

3. For commercial b2b email, there is the requirement to comply with CAN SPAM and offer unsubscribe within 10 business days of a request. However, I find that b2b unsubscribe mechanisms are quite often faulty and you aren't unsubscribed. I think this is a case of ineptitude and not evil. You aren't getting unsubscribed, but I doubt the sender of the VC conference email is sending it to you Allen in order to confirm your email address so your address can be sold to the sender of the fake Cialis and Nigerian oil scam emails. The ineptitude of b2b mailers exists because the equivalent of the "this is spam" button enabling mass consumer voting on email senders doesn't exist, or isn't as efficient in b2b email. In other words the top 4 ISPs might represent 60-80% of a b2c list, but the top 4 anti-spam guys probably only represent 20% of a b2b list (if the anti-spam guys even have a "this is spam" function aggregating user feedback). So currently b2b senders have much less pressure than b2c senders to make their email systems, such as unsubscribe, work well.

Bottom Line: Don't hit unsubscribe link on true spam email. Feel good about hitting unsubscribe link on most all opt-in b2c email. Try hitting unsubscribe link on b2b email that looks reputable. If you don't stop getting mail in 10 days (and BTW, better emails honor your request a lot sooner than 10 days) then I agree with Chris Mitchell and would put that sender on my personal client side blacklist or otherwise filter it.

Senders who don't clean up their acts (legitimate business with overly aggressive mailings or poor infrastructure like non-working unsubscribe) are going to suffer as the era of authentication (SPF, DKIM) and email sender reputation (or rating) services become a fixture in the Internet Infrastructure.

Posted by: Des Cahill | May 12, 2007 5:49:54 PM

I agree, use "unsubscribe" for what appears to be "decent" senders (not that I have strict criteria to determine), but for the rest, don't just "delete", mark it as spam. At least with Gmail (and the Google Apps version) this is very effective, the spam filter learns fast.

Posted by: Zoli Erdos | May 12, 2007 10:38:29 PM

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