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AOL and Goodmail: Two Steps Back for Email

Remember the old email hoax about Hillary Clinton pushing for email taxation? When we first heard AOL’s plans for Goodmail today, we thought maybe the hoax had re-surfaced and a few industry reporters got hooked by it. But alas, this tax plan seems to be true.

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.

AOL will begin phasing out its enhanced whitelist in favor of Goodmail’s brand new and untested certification program—which requires a fee for each email sent. This effectively encourages marketers and senders to focus not as much on email best practices but on paying cash for inbox reach. It punishes companies who already do everything right with email by adding another roadblock before they can reach customers.

With senders having to pay a fraction of a cent for each email sent, the fees for companies (and profits for AOL and Goodmail) will mount and good mailers will not always be able to participate—even if they have a pristine email reputation and customer relationship. This is in effect taxation of the good guys with cash – and it does nothing to help the good guys who can’t afford the cost or to deter the bad guys who just plan to spam anyway.

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.

Goodmail reportedly uses some reputation data to determine “good” senders. What data do they use? Is it comprehensive? It is our strong opinion that email delivery should be based on a solid email reputation. That reputation should be based on a comprehensive set of data points including in-depth complaint rates, unknown user rates, spam trap data, permission practices, email infrastructure, volume of email sent and identity integrity, among a long list of other factors.

If Goodmail looks at less data than AOL currently uses ... so how can it be better?

AOL stands to make a lot of money at the risk of setting back email as best practices-based marketing. This is bad for senders who care about setting high email standards, bad for consumers’ inboxes and simply, bad policy.

There’s been a ton of coverage of this problem, including this great one in DMNews. Look for a lot more reaction from the industry to this once people really understand what’s going on.

Update Feb 3, 2006:
Disclaimer: Matt Blumberg is the CEO & Chairman of Return Path, Inc.

By Matt Blumberg, CEO and Chairman at Return Path

Filed Under


Yakov Shafranovich  –  Feb 2, 2006 10:43 PM

Well, if anything this will actually provide us with a first real world test of e-postage.

Daniel T. Dreymann  –  Feb 3, 2006 1:10 AM

> Now, AOL may be saying that those standards don’t matter as much as a
> postage stamp when it comes to email delivery.

When baseless commentaries such as the one above were repeated by Return Path and their cronies on their own blogs, I did not feel like dignifying them with a reply. I was shocked by the obvious omission from their description of the reputation components of the Goodmail CertifiedEmail Program. Now that they have posted their misleading commentary in a more public forum, I feel I have no choice but to engage.

Senders participating in the CertifiedEmail Program must have a pristine reputation to become accredited and sustain a very low level of user complaints to maintain good standing in the Program. We estimate that many Fortune 500 companies will not qualify for the CertifiedEmail Program. Goodmail’s closed loop system measures sender reputation with an accuracy that Return Path can only dream of. They do not have the technology. Blumberg knows it, his VCs know it—readers of CircleID deserve to know it too.

The Famous Brett Watson  –  Feb 3, 2006 3:29 AM

It’s a bit of a challenge sorting the facts from the rhetoric here. Matt Blumberg, the article author, represents a competitor of Goodmail, and Daniel T. Dreymann, author of comment #2, represents Goodmail itself. All in all, I don’t feel terribly well informed relative to the number of words that have been used.

Here’s what I can glean about the matter so far. Firstly, AOL appears to be applying this filter to “rich content” email, not “plain text” email. I don’t know the precise distinction between the two, algorithmically speaking, but it’s not new. They have applied this kind of two-tiered filtering for some time. This limits the scope of the issue somewhat.

It also seems to be a matter of agreed fact that there is a per-message charge associated with this system. Such charges are anathema to bulk-mailers of any kind, so we can expect some highly-strung responses (as seen in evidence here already). I don’t see just cause to accuse anyone of shameless profiteering yet: this financial approach merely reflects more of the cost of spam filtering back onto mail senders rather than mail recipients. I don’t expect mail senders to be happy about this, but it acts as a reminder that spam isn’t necessarily just a recipient’s problem.

Senders will no doubt complain that they are legitimate senders, but this is immaterial. Someone has to address the cost of restoring reliability to the polluted medium that is email. Generally this has been the recipients, purely by merit of their “downstream” position in the process, but there’s no legal or moral theory which prevents the recipients from requiring certain senders to share the burden. Whether or not such a requirement is effective, pragmatically speaking, is a different question.

It will be modestly interesting to see how the marketplace adjusts to this change, but contrary to Yakov, I don’t think it constitutes a real-world test of e-postage. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can just attach a stamp and expect delivery: “stamps” are only sold to customers who pass a reputation check, apparently. And there’s always the option of falling back to plain text email.

David A. Ulevitch  –  Feb 3, 2006 3:38 AM

The Famous Brett Watson,

Thanks—It’s in truly poor taste for the author not to disclose his relationship with/against Goodmail in the article.

Matt—Would you post a correction or footnote at the bottom disclosing your positions considering the tone of your article and your interest in discrediting a competitor.

CircleID—If Matt chooses not to make a footnote, would you add a correction?  CircleID is a great source of information and while comments are generally understood to be biased and personal commentary that same isn’t true for articles.  Articles posted in “topics” are viewed much more as news or information or something intended to foster discussion.  This article is none of the above—it’s an editorial from a competitor masqueraded as a news/op-ed hybrid.


Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Feb 3, 2006 11:02 AM

If the original post that triggered this thread was based on this rather inaccurate clickz article ..

I would suggest that Returnpath talk to AOL’s postmasters (Charles Stiles, who was quoted in the article, would be a good person to talk to..). And get a few facts straightened out.


To the best of my knowledge, AOL’s enhanced whitelist isn’t really going away, despite what the article says.

It’d be good if someone from AOL can post a reasonable clarification first. Before this thread continues based on a clearly wrong article and with representatives of two competing reputation vendors participating in it.


David A. Ulevitch  –  Feb 3, 2006 5:09 PM

Matt emailed me privately along with the Editor in Chief of CircleID to let me know it was actually just an unintended oversight to not indicate Matt’s relationship to the article.

It’s been corrected.  Cool.


Ali Farshchian  –  Feb 3, 2006 5:10 PM

Thank you all for your valid inputs and we apologies for this oversight. This article was posted on CircleID as a featured blog, originally published on Return Path’s blog which did include authors name and title. Since postings on CircleID are tagged with authors name to a full dedicated page for each author, footnotes are often not inserted about the author with the post itself. However, as per suggestions in the comments above, a footnote has now been added providing author’s position.

Your comments and inputs are deeply appreciated.

Matt Blumberg  –  Feb 3, 2006 5:11 PM

Good comments from everyone - thank you.  I’ll try to generally address them all in this one response.

First, I apologize for the lack of disclosure on this article about my role as CEO of Return Path, which is (sort of) a competitor to Goodmail.  The omission was inadvertent, as the article was picked up from the Return Path blog, which obviously didn’t need to identify me or my interests, and the folks at CircleID and I didn’t think to add in the disclosure.

Second, Suresh, you have a great point.  I have reached out to Charles Stiles this morning to try to clarify AOL’s position.  If in fact they are not shutting down their enhanced whitelist on June 30 as reported and forcing thousands of mailers to use Goodmail as opposed to organically earning their way onto the enhanced whitelist, then I will help them publicize the correction.  That would be great for the industry, and it’s my biggest hope that something good will come out of this controversy.

Finally, Daniel, nice to meet you.  I have never claimed that Return Path has cryptographic technology to match what you have spent years developing.  Likewise, I’m sure you’re not claiming that Return Path doesn’t have a solid data-driven, quantitative approach to mailer deliverability and reputation since that’s the business we’ve been in for years and are the recognized industry leader in. 

I’m also very pleased to hear that Goodmail is now considering implementing reputation standards around who qualifies for certified mail as well, since that wasn’t your original model.  That bodes well for your program and certainly removes the appearance of being a “paid spam” model.  However, I have heard some of the standards that you’re using in industry groups, and they seem to be much looser than AOL’s current standards, which, if true, is incredibly disappointing to say the least.

William Leibzon  –  Feb 3, 2006 11:13 PM

Interesting news, but considering different information all provided by 3rd parties, it would be good to hear about this directly from AOL.

I do have some concern with system where email sender pays being called a reputation system. I believe reputation implies a receipient asking 3rd party what it thinks of the sender (or about particular email) and to provide fair assessment and reputation value, this 3rd party should not be affiliated with the sender (and definetly not kind where it receives payment for each sent message). The model with Goodmail tokens & payments seems more closely associated with concept of accreditation which only implies that 3rd party can confirm identity of the sender and that sender promised to follow certain rules.

I’m not fan of e-postage, but if that is being used only to allow content-rich emails to get through, that maybe an ok scenario, though I fear it could still segment internet email system.

Daniel T. Dreymann  –  Feb 3, 2006 11:40 PM

Since Matt chose to move the debate to another thread, I’ll follow him there.

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