What is an email address? (part two)


Yesterday I talked about the technical definitions of an email address. Eventually on Monday I’m going to talk about some useful day-to-day rules about email address acquisition and analysis, but first I’m going to take a detour into tagging or mailboxing email addresses.
Tagging an email address is something the owner of an email address can do to make it easier to handle incoming email. It works by adding an extra word to the local part of the email address separated by a special character, such as “+”, “=” or “-“. So, if my email address is steve@example.com, and I’m signing up for the MAAWG mailing lists I can sign up with the email address steve+maawg@example.com. When mail is sent to steve+maawg@example.com it will be delivered to my steve@example.com mailbox, but I’ll know that it’s mail from MAAWG. I can use that tag to whitelist that mail, to filter it to it’s own mailbox and a bunch of other useful things.
In some ways this is similar to recent disposable email address services, but rather than being a third party service it’s something that’s been built in to many mailservers for well over a decade. It doesn’t require me to create each new address at a web page, instead I can make tags up on the fly. And it works at my regular mail domain.
If you’re an ESP it can be interesting to look for tagged addresses in uploaded lists. If it’s a list owned by Kraft and you see the email address steve+gevalia@example.com in the list, that’s a strong sign that that email address at least was really volunteered to the list owner. If you see the email address steve+microsoft@example.com then it’s a strong sign that it wasn’t, and you might want to look harder at where the list came from.
One reason that this is relevant to email address capture is that tagged addresses are something that you should expect people, especially more sophisticated users of email, to use to sign up to mailing lists and that they’re something you don’t want to discourage. Yet many web signup forms forbid entering email addresses with a “+” or, worse, have bugs in them that map a “+” sign in the email address to a space – leading to the signup failing at best, or the wrong email address being added to the list at worst. This really annoys people who use tagged addresses to help manage their email, and they’re often exactly the sort of tech-savvy people who make a lot of online purchases you want to have on your lists.
More on Monday.

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