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AOL, Yahoo wide open to bulk e-mail, for a fee

February 05, 2006

America Online and Yahoo are about to give special treatment to messages from companies that pay 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered. On AOL they will not have to pass filters that could divert them to a spam e-mail box or strip them of images and Web links.

In the next two months, AOL will start accepting e-mail processed by Goodmail Systems, whose home page advertises "if it's certified, it's safe," that will collect the electronic postage and verify the identity of the sender.

The system will apply not only to mass mailings but also to individual messages.

Goodmail will charge 1/4 cent to 1 cent per message, with high-volume mailers getting the biggest discounts. It will give more than half of that amount to the e-mail service provider.

America Online and Yahoo stand to earn millions of dollars a year from the system if it is widely adopted.

Paying senders will be assured that their messages will be delivered to AOL users' main in-boxes and marked as "AOL Certified E-Mail."

The claim is that this is "opt-in" only and "not spam." But the incoming lists aren't audited. This is, in fact, a pay-off to let "spam that is not spam" through the company's spam filters.

Unpaid messages will be subject to AOL's spam-filtering process, which diverts suspicious messages to a special spam folder. Most unpaid messages will also not be displayed with their original images and links.

The fundamental problem is that AOL is phasing out their IP-based Enhanced Whitelist and forcing all mailers to either pay Goodmail or no longer be considered legit email.

A statement released by AOL Postmaster Charles Stiles revealed "On June 30, 2006, AOL will terminate Enhanced Whitelist privileges. This change will disable links and images by default from all non-certified bulk email viewed from AOL 9.0, AOL webmail and all subsequent client releases. As always, links and images can be enabled by the end user on a message-by-message basis."

Critics of the plan say the companies risk alienating both their users and the companies that send e-mail.

"As a small Web hosting company, and one which has already been subject to AOL's capricious policy of shutting off mail with little or no justification, the prospect of 'paid' preferential service appears to be a sham that will allow junk mailers who can afford the fees direct access to AOL (and Yahoo) clients while interfering with personal contact and the free exchange of ideas," says J. Barrett Wolf.

"No operator of a free e-mail newsletter service is going to pay protection on what is legal opt-in traffic," says Dana Blankenhorn, a business journalist for over 25 years who has covered the online world professionally since 1985.

Who will? Marketers.

Matt Blumberg, chief executive of email marketing firm Return Path, believes AOL's announcement that it will begin implementing Goodmail's CertifiedEmail program and phasing out its own enhanced whitelist is nothing more than an attempt to get money out of non-spamming marketers.

"AOL has long held the leading standard in email whitelisting. Every email sender who cares about delivery has tried to keep their email reputation high so that they could earn placement on AOL's coveted Enhanced Whitelist. Now, AOL may be saying that those standards don't matter as much as a postage stamp when it comes to email delivery.

"Email getting delivered to the mailbox should be based on the reputation of the sender -- not whether they paid for guaranteed delivery. Now AOL is saying that isn't enough. By charging significant dollars for email delivery, AOL and Goodmail are on the road to creating a 'pay to play' model that puts subscriber benefit and sender equality second," reads Blumberg's blog.

Goodmail was founded aiming to charge postage for all mail, but it has narrowed its focus to mail sent by companies and major nonprofit organizations. It does not envision that individuals will pay to have their e-mail delivered.

Goodmail want $200 to process applications from companies, and plan to double that charge in mid-year.

The New York Times Company will utilize the service for users of its online properties including NYTimes.com, Boston.com and About.com.





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