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Confirming spam reports

Someone floated the idea of having ISPs confirm that a user really wants to report a mail as spam every time they do so. The original poster was asking for comments and what we thought of such an idea.

The only thing I could think of is the poor woman who’s been gone for a week on vacation and is selecting large swathes of her mailbox and hitting “this is spam.”
She then gets mailbombed by her ISP with confirmation messages.
She then selects all the confirmation messages and reports those as spam.
Repeat until something breaks or she collapses sobbing in the corner because she can’t get all the crap out of her mailbox!!!

Asking users to confirm each spam report, either by an email or adding a second popup box is extremely user unfriendly. Users will demand a “confirm all” button, and never read the confirmation anyway.

15 comments

  1. Huey says

    I can see the point of the original idea – there is an ugly race condition where the user signs up for something, reports it as spam, gets unsubscribed, complains because they’re not getting it, gets signed up again, reports it as spam again, gets unsubscribed again, and so on. And yes, it’s an edge case, but one that the senders care about desperately.
    And, there’s a technological solution that’s more elegant than confirmed opt-out: big receivers can already detect second-received-line filtering, so they could expand that technology to determine what’s legitimate list mail, and only confirm those, or treat those ‘report spam’ clicks differently, or what-have-you. But here’s the thing: they’re not going to do that, because it’s a lot of work to solve an edge case, for not a lot of gain.
    Here’s the real way to solve that edge case, and it’s something the senders can do: be timely and relevant and engaging enough that you minimize your ‘report spam’ clicks, and when you get them, unsubscribe that user, and when they complain, use that as a teaching point. “We unsubscribed you because you complained. Please don’t do that.” Maybe suggest creating a filter that pulls their messages OUT of the inbox and puts them somewhere safe, so they don’t accidentally get ‘report spam’ clicks even. Whatever. In any case, it’s not a receiver problem to solve, it’s a sender problem to solve.

    1. laura says

      I left out a little context because the discussion happened on a private mailing list. But similar discussions have happened in a lot of places and they tend to boil down to “senders want this to happen.” It’s the same as an unsubscribe button vs. a “this is spam” button, or a “like” button so that end users can vote up a particular email.
      End users aren’t asking for these things so the ISPs are not going to provide them. Those in the sender community that really think these are viable options that end users want should drive the development and demonstrate these are things that the end users want. The only way to do this is to put the feature out there as a plugin or add-on and let user demand percolate through the ISPs.
      The ISPs want to keep their users happy and if the things that senders are proposing will make the users happy, then the ISPs will implement them. However, I have yet to see any argument or data to demonstrate this is something that endusers want. Instead, senders keep asking for more changes to the email interface without doing any of the work necessary to make those changes happen.
      I think if the senders would put a good faith effort into creating the change they want to see that they might understand why the changes aren’t happening just because they’re asking.

  2. Fred Tabsharani says

    Hi Laura…… Actually it’s the “behavior” of the subscriber (per your example) we’re hoping to change over time with this idea.. while maintaining the good reputation of legitmate senders. We’re looking to educate subscribers that by clicking the “report spam” button adversly affects the sender reputation.
    I think that you would agree that most subscribers outside our industry aren’t fully aware of the after shocks of “report spam button” to sender reputation. By changing subscriber behavior, making them think twice and considering the ramifications may lead to a kinder gentler inbox. By having a confirmation email, or a pop up box explicitly sharing details of the consequences might help defray the onlaught of “anxious report spam clickers.”
    Not the original poster of this idea, but, am an advocate for cultivating change around the “report spam” button.

    1. laura says

      We’re looking to educate subscribers that by clicking the “report spam” button adversly affects the sender reputation.
      Why should subscribers care? They don’t want your mail. They so much don’t want your mail that they’re going to call it “spam” instead of just unsubscribing.
      I think that you would agree that most subscribers outside our industry aren’t fully aware of the after shocks of “report spam button” to sender reputation.
      I would agree they may not be aware of the effect on sender reputation. I’m also pretty sure that either they don’t care or they will be happy that reporting mail they don’t want as spam actually has a negative effect on the sender’s reputation.
      My belief is that most of the spam reports that are unintentional are the result of selecting large swathes of an inbox and hitting “this is spam” on all of them. Adding a confirmation step to that is just going to annoy the person who really just wants to get junk out of their inbox. They’re not going to *read* the confirmation box after the first one. They’re just going to hit yes. Repeatedly. Getting more and more annoyed with each confirmation box.
      The thing is, the people who are advocating this kind of change seem to have not thought through how this would work, how it would affect the interface or how this affects the user experience. Now, this is the point where my anti-spam friends will say “but they’re senders / spammers, they don’t care about the user experience, they only care about their own experience.” I am not sure that’s actually true, I think that maybe there is some value in it. But it’s going to be a huge amount of work and a massive resource commitment to make the product changes, and not just development effort but also interface design, wording tests and UI changes.
      No one advocating this has come up with any reason other than “well, it will make senders’ jobs easier” for the ISPs to make this commitment. Advocates have done so little thinking about how they can’t even answer relevant questions. And while my initial “sobbing in the corner” is a bit tongue in cheek it is absolutely a valid and common use case.
      Not the original poster of this idea, but, am an advocate for cultivating change around the “report spam” button.
      I don’t think that senders who want to cultivate change around the support button are going to make any headway unless and until they actually provide a working implementation of whatever change they want to happen.
      If you (generic you) want to see changes made then make them happen. Yes, it’s a little harder for something like this, but it seems to me that offering a simple “unsubscribe” button that triggers off the list-unsubscribe header is a good start. Work out the implementation. Work out the protocols. Figure out the use cases. Work out the security. Address the abuse potential.
      If you want the change then you must be able to demonstrate your change is worth the cost, both in real dollars and in development effort.

  3. Derek Harding says

    We typically send no acknowledgement when removing someone due to a spam complaint. However due to the way the Gmail process works (an automated unsubscription email is sent to the reply address) we do acknowledge gmail spam unsubscription requests. While I don’t have statistics, anecdotaly it is not uncommon to have people asking us why they received the acknowledgment and complaining that they did not wish to be unsubscribed.
    This suggests to me that a not insignificant proportion of people are either hitting abuse inadvertently or are unaware of the implications of doing so.

    1. laura says

      Gmail offers users a choice (http://lifehacker.com/5319723/gmail-offers-to-automatically-unsubscribe-you-from-mailing-lists): “report spam” or “unsubscribe and report spam.”
      The fact that people are hitting “unsubscribe and report spam” and are then confused about being unsubscribed leads me to the sad conclusion that no amount of interface changes or user education is going to solve this.

  4. Al says

    I have to be honest, this feels strongly like a solution in search of a problem.

  5. The Other Barry says

    I see that the ‘sender’ community still doesn’t understand that the button is needed to combat real abuse.
    Or that messing with the button negatively impacts real abuse prevention.
    Or that it’s not a technical problem, it’s a trust problem. No amount of playing with the user interface will make users or mail system operators or anti-abuse personnel trust you.

  6. J.D. Falk says

    I’ve lost count of how many studies I’ve seen — some funded by marketers, even — which show that when users click the spam button, they just want that message to Go Away. They don’t want to think about it any further.
    Marketers should respect that, but they’re also scared that “mistaken” clicks of the spam button would affect their reputation. Sure, that could happen, but that’s why the same mailbox providers also have a “not spam” button in the spam folder. That way, if something is (in the recipient’s opinion) miscategorized, it can be rescued — which also affects the sender’s reputation. I wrote about this last September:
    http://www.returnpath.net/blog/2009/09/the-spam-folder-is-your-chance.php
    But the core of it all, as Laura keeps saying, is that the spam button works just fine for the people and the purpose it was created for. If you want it to serve some other purpose, that’s a different discussion.

  7. John Levine says

    I would find it mildly useful if FBL reports told me how many messages the user had reported at once. If it’s one, it’s pretty clear that either the user really wants the mail to go away, or is so deeply confused that no amount of education will help. If it’s 100, it’s probably select all and report, in which case I wouldn’t ignore it, but I probably wouldn’t summarily unsub on the first notice either.

  8. Nazzareno Gorni says

    We have to consider that the word “spam” from an end user point of view means “not relevant”. In this scenario confirming is never a solution. My vision is different. The only solution from the senders point of you is to better analyze and profile their users and just try to send relevant messages, eventually using different lists for different types of content (i.e. invites, product A, product B…). Then the user will report spam and unsubscribe from a certain types of messages, but will still receive the others. Otherwise, if he clicks on “unsubscribe”, he will be able to edit his preferences and unsubscribe from everything.
    Gmail does not have a FBL so does use List-Unsubscribe to provide that kind of feature, only for user who “unsubscribe and report spam”. The reason is easy: users may prefer clicking on “report spam” instead of a simple “unsubscribe”, just to be sure to have their mailbox clean.

  9. J.D. Falk says

    Splitting lists won’t help; users will recognize that the message is from the same company, the same brand. They (and CAN-SPAM) don’t care if YOU consider it to be a different list. To the recipient, it’s another message from the same company — even though they keep clicking on the spam button to make it go away.

  10. Neil Schwartzman says

    the impact of a single spam report via the TiS button upon a sender is negligible. Anyone looking to ‘train’ users to think twice should think once about why their mail is garnering so many complaints as to negatively impact their overall reputation.

  11. The Proverbial Barry says

    whole thing is just layz marketers trying to avoid responsibility for what they send
    if they cared about users theyd work on improving waht they send instead of thinking up work for isps to do

  12. Joe says

    I tend to agree that many users do not know exactly what implications clicking the ‘spam’ button will have on the sender. I know I sure don’t know exactly and to what extent it will hit the sender’s reputation.
    Personally, whenever I get a spam in one of my webmail accounts, I always click the ‘spam’ button *and* follow up with a complaint to the sender’s upstream provider. If they are ReturnPath or Goodmail certified I usually CC ReturnPath or Goodmail on the complaint. That way I feel that at least maybe the sender will have some consequence.

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