Friday, May 13, 2005

Lesson #7 - How to handle email

If you start a web site, and if you publicize an email address somewhere on your web site, and if your web site becomes at all popular, then one thing is for sure -- you will get email. Lots and lots of email in some cases.

In my case, one of the things that forced HowStuffWorks to become a business was the amount of email I was receiving. There simply was no way for one person to process all the email that was coming in on a daily basis.

WebKEW is only a few weeks old at this point, and I have not published an email address on WebKEW, but the email has started coming in. Here is an example of the kind of email WebKEW is generating:
    I've been a follower of your Robotic Nation series since it began and am an avid reader of your blogs. Your WebKew postings have finally led me to do something which I've been thinking about for the last couple of years, which is to start my own blogs.

    I have yet to find a site which collects all the news and stories I'm interested in, so I've decided to start my own. Since I read numerous other blogs and news sites to collect the information, it's but a simple step to edit and post it to my site.

    I just wanted to write and thank you for efforts to help budding web publishers like myself, and to let you know about the blogs, in case you might be interested.

    The blogs are:
I wrote back and asked Mike for permission to publish his note. From his perspective, it is helpful for me to publish it because it boosts his Google ranking. We will be discussing the Google footprint of a site in detail in the weeks to come.

I can tell you that not all email that you receive will be this nice. Some of your incoming email will come in the form of "flames." People read what you write, do not like it for some reason, and want to make sure you know it. One option you always have with a flame is the delete key. In some cases, the flamer is sending the flame specifically to get a rise out of you (and will publish your response if you send one, even though that is probably illegal under copyright law), and the delete key is a good choice. Or, writing back to a flamer with a very simple "thank you for taking the time to write" email may be appropriate. Blogs will change your business offers several examples of the kind of things that can happen with email.

One other piece of advice that I would offer is this: Do not use HTML's "mailto" tag on a web page, and do not put a text version of your email address in a web page. That is, never embed something like this in your web pages:
    <a href="">Contact me</a>
If you use the mailto tag or place a text version of your address on your site, then spambots will spider your site, pick up your email address and start sending you a cascade of spam. One way to avoid this problem is to use a gif image rather than text, like this:
Do not make the image clickable and do not surround it with a mailto tag. Simply let people type in your email address if they want to send you email. This approach is not perfect, but it is a simple way of avoiding a lot of spam.

Another option is to use forms to handle incoming messages. The White House now uses a (pretty elaborate) form system. HowStuffWorks uses a much simpler approach, but it is the same idea. In the age of spam, a form system cuts down on most of the spam you will receive.

By giving visitors "other means" to express their opinions besides email -- e.g., comments and forums -- you can cut down on the amount of email that you receive. If you would like to receive more email, do not offer comments or forums.

Overall, I like it when people send email, and I think incoming email is a great thing -- it gives people a way to critique your site, and it lets them offer new ideas, links and so on. Yes, a few flames do come in too, but they are the exception rather than the rule.


At 12:01 PM, Anonymous kallahar said...

I took the opposite approach. My email address has been on every site, user ID, mailing list, etc that I've used since 1995. I decided to rely on filtering technology rather than changing addresses often. It's worked pretty well, I currently filter out about 1000 emails a day and receive about 100 real ones. I'm sure there are false positives, but overall I've been happy, and I don't have to worry about being careful with who gets my email address.

At 1:31 PM, Anonymous naum said...

Eh, even a web form to funnel email can be spammed and it's a simple deal for anybody to craft a HTTP POST request. Typically, though, custom forms or custom scripts you build will be a great deal less vulnerable than a packaged web content management system (like blogger here, or other readily accessible CMS).

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't think about spambots. Thank you for the warning.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger keithmonaghan said...

Another method is to encode the email text and HTML as Javascript, hiding them from spam bots. Automatic has a free online tool that will do it for you. Just type in the email address and it will spit out the encoded version. All you have to do is copy and paste it into your pages.

Also, thanks for the great blog, Marshall. Lots of great stuff in here. Can't wait for the book!

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous elkyle said...

keithmonaghan - This is a bad idea, because it effectively blocks all non-javascript people from even seeing your email address. Some clients, such as text-to-speech applications, either completely ignore Javasript, or have great difficulties getting around it. Also, many people have JS diabled, to prevent the bulk of irratating popups, alert boxes, and more. I think that the best idea is to create an email address just for a site (ex: or and train your spam filter (you do have one, right?) to junk all the spam.

My email address is a "common" (i.e. You can figure it out if you keep stringing letters together) one at a popular US ISP, so I get a ton of spam. However, Thunderbird has an excellent spam filter that use Bayesian filtering to adapt to spam, and learn from the emails that you mark as spam. I would guess that I have only had a half-dozen false positives in more than six months use (most of which were at the beginning). Same quality, if not better, than Norton Antispam (which only has plugins for Outlook and Outlook Express, mind you), which I also own, but never use.

A little off topic, but it still is an important part of "How to handle email"

El Kyle

At 5:38 PM, Blogger keithmonaghan said...

elkyle - You bring up a good point. One I had, quite honestly, dismissed after seeing Javascript encoding on some very popular sites. I assumed that they knew something I didn't. As your post points out, maybe not. Thanks for the perspective. I use Thunderbird too, and love it dearly. Perhaps forms are a good option as well.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Blaine Moore said...

Javascript is not such a good idea, and forms are great if written correctly. You can craft an HTTP Post message, but if you set the form to only forward email if the post was referred from your website, then you don't have to worry as much about spammers. Unless they specifically write a script to visit your site and fill in the forms, which is probably not worth their time.

At 6:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course the topic of Javascript and accesibillity is a moot point if you follow one of the authors ideas of using an image to display your email. I believe the form is the best way to go.

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Pete Williams said...

One other drawback of using the mailto: tag is that it automatically opens the default email client, which is usually Outlook. But the majority of people nowadays use webmail, such as hotmail, so they then have to close Outlook and type the address manually anyway.

Personally I prefer to use forms because that way there's much less chance of your email address getting onto spam lists. You can also protect your form from spam by adding a 'captcha' field to check that the sender is indeed human.

At 12:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I defeat spammers by making my email in my web page look like this:


No, my name's not Andy -- that's an example.

At 2:03 AM, Blogger Simon said...

Guys, if you want to make money, follow Marshall's advice; make one image showing your email address, and make one simple contact form for each of your web pages. Those who can't type and/or see the image, will rely on using the form.
Forget about "training" spam filters. That is not going to make you much money. Get a spam filter that "just works". I rely on Gmail.

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At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Sildenafil said...

I just started my own website and I put my email address, I have get an email only so far, but thank you for your observations I will take them into consideration!

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous kamagra said...

e-mail is a great way to get feedback and hateful mails that you probably think that people loose time when they are written them.

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I remember one e-mail about Gabe Newell a renown steam and valve co-founder. he read every e-mail that people send him.

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