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Spam: It's more than bulk e-mail

Consumers are increasingly applying the noxious label to marketing messages of all stripes, causing headaches for legitimate advertisers on the Web and beyond.

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Consumers are increasingly applying the stigma of spam to marketing messages of all stripes, causing headaches for legitimate advertisers on the Web and beyond.

For some people, pop-up ads, poorly edited "opt-in" marketing lists and search engine manipulation might just as well be lumped together with the junk e-mail scourge. Add to that aggressive marketing pitches over fax machines, cell phones and personal digital assistants, and the list of offenses that deserve the spam handle is seemingly endless.

"Spam has become a generic term for any intrusion that people don?t like," said Ray Everett-Church, a privacy and government relations consultant with ePrivacy Group and an anti-spam advocate.

Spam may be officially defined as "unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail," but more than semantics is at stake. The volume and breadth of new digital advertising strategies threaten to wipe out the line between legitimate and illegitimate marketing, some experts say, as people begin to view all interruptions on a computing or telecommunications device as out of bounds. The result could be a delay in the long hoped-for recovery in the battered online ad market as consumers dig in their heels.

Legislators have handed consumers new tools to fight spammers with laws enacted in states such as Washington and California. But those rules have stuck to a relatively narrow definition of spam, according to legal experts who said they've left plenty of room for annoyances to slip through unchecked.

"The definitions that have been written in state laws cover about 90 percent of what they were intended to catch," said Dave Kramer, a partner at the law firm Wilson Sonsini. "The problem is that a lot of junk e-mail is not commercial. Some is political, some religious and some may be sent just to annoy people."

New forms of marketing such as pop-up ads have sharpened the rhetoric of anti-spammers and extended it into new arenas, Kramer said. But he cautioned that each form of advertising should be dealt with on its own terms, rather than lumped together under a broad and perhaps inappropriate label.

That sentiment was seconded by Everett-Church, who said anti-spammers have in general sought to underscore the differences rather than the similarities between spam and other forms of marketing that may be equally irritating to consumers.

According to Everett-Church and Kramer, the defining factor of spam is not the annoyance of endless trips to the Delete key, but the economic costs faced by corporations and Internet service providers forced to pick up the tab for bandwidth and other expenses.

"Anti-spammers have long sought to argue against those who would combine banner ads on Web pages and pop-ups into the spam problem," he said. "While most of those other technologies may be intrusive, they often help pay for the service you're using. Spam, by contrast, is deeply parasitic."

Pop-ups and other terrors
Spam's widening definition is already disturbing legitimate marketers seeking to shore up their online status at a tough time for the advertising industry. Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, said the organization is hard at work to devise member guidelines to prevent a backlash among consumers.

Those efforts come as Web companies and advertisers struggle in their attempts to turn new media to their advantage--and profit. Mirroring industrywide trends, Internet advertising revenue in the U.S. totaled just $1.55 billion for the first quarter of 2002, declining 6.5 percent from the fourth quarter of 2001, and down 18 percent from the first quarter of 2001, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), an online trade association.

The declines have come as advertisers and publishers pull out the stops with new and invasive advertising formats that include taking over an entire computer screen, buying top placement in search engine results and plying customers with incentives to sign up for e-mail marketing lists, among others.

Because people are so overwhelmed by solicitations sent on the Web, by e-mail, direct mail, fax and mobile devices, they are quickly tuning everything out and developing a bitter taste for legitimate marketers, he said.

"We are impacted by the growth of unsolicited e-mail, because in effect, it dilutes the power of people getting marketing messages that are relevant," Mastria said.

Permission to be annoyed, please
Legitimate marketers face a tough credibility problem, according to research from spam filter company Cloudmark, one of dozens of companies that have sprung up in the past year offering desktop tools for managing junk e-mail.

Cloudmark's SpamNet filter collects votes from users to classify e-mail as junk to be filtered out or a legitimate message to be passed through to the in-box.

A preliminary study of results collected in the months since the product launched shows that recipients on permission-based lists frequently identify such e-mail as spam, Cloudmark CEO Karl Jacob said.

"The last bastion of spam protection is handling mailing lists," he said.

Jacob pointed to a recent promotion on online retail giant Amazon's opt-in mailing lists as an example of the perception gap between companies that run permission-based marketing programs and average consumers who receive e-mail under them.

In an opt-in promotion on Sept. 12, seven out of 10 SpamNet participants who rated an e-mail titled "?Barbershop? opens Sept. 13" voted to expunge the message as spam, according to the company's records.

An Amazon representative said the study sample did not appear large enough to be conclusive. The company declined to state the number of customers on its permission-based roles, or disclose its turnover rate.

Cloudmark is conducting a deeper analysis of its results that it intends to publish in the next few weeks, Jacob said.

Cloudmark, which has signed up more than 100,000 SpamNet users, also plans to develop better mailing list management tools for future upgrades that let users set custom white lists and black lists to automatically accept or reject e-mail, respectively.

In addition, the company plans to automate the process of having an e-mail address removed from a mailing list. "Unsubscribing," as the process is known, has proven too difficult for many consumers, Jacob said, leaving bad addresses on lists and undermining attempts to build permission-based marketing programs.

Pop-up protests
From the first quarter this year to the second quarter, the number of pop-up ads grew from about 3.9 billion to nearly 5 billion impressions, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, which measures Internet traffic patterns.

In response, hundreds of thousands of consumers have downloaded some kind of pop-up advertising filtering technology to battle increasing online interruptions. America Online recently responded to customer complaints by promising to slash the number of pop-ups served to its 34 million members. AOL rival EarthLink, meanwhile, began promoting pop-up blocking as a feature of its service.

"Pop-ups are a strong form of spam because they come at you from any angle, any site, and you have to stop what you're doing to close them," said Matina Fresenius, CEO of ad-filtering software maker Panicware.

Pop-ups are proliferating in other ways. All the major Web portals including AOL, Yahoo and MSN have warmed to alerts--pop-up notifications that grab consumers' attention for services such as e-mail or shopping deals even when they're busy in other applications. The features, billed as a useful service for subscribers, give the portals license to disturb at any time a visitor who is online or even reachable via mobile device.

For example, Yahoo feeds Messenger subscribers pop-ups whenever a new e-mail arrives in their inbox by default. The notice, which also includes an advertisement, informs the mail subscriber on who has sent them a message--even if it is a spammer.

Companies such as X-10, notorious for its pop-up ad campaigns, can find a new way to get in front of audiences via this alert. In its defense, Yahoo said that people could turn off the feature at any point and the company works vigorously to fight spam through its company-engineered bulk-mail filter.

"We continually employ measures to protect from unsolicited email through our Spamguard technology but (spam) is an industry issue, and one we take seriously," said a Yahoo spokesperson.

Searching for spam
The spam label has long found ready use in application to search engines.

Since the Web commercialized in the mid-1990s and search became its guidepost, marketers have targeted the search indices with tricks that promise top ranking for Web pages, despite their relevance.

For example, rogue marketers may stuff or "spam" metatags--the source code of a Web page--with keywords commonly queried by surfers, such as "sex" or "books." Because navigation tools can depend on metatags to determine the appropriateness of a page related to a search term, the tags can artificially land a site in top results.

In another example, search engine optimizers use a tactic called "cloaking," in which they create Web pages expressly to be indexed by the engine. This means that a marketer would deliver up a page to be indexed by Google, unlike the public-facing page, to enhance visibility in its search results.

The net effect is a less handy search engine. Someone searching for the "National Football League," for example, could find instead an adult-related Web site in the top three listings if a marketer had its way.

While search engines such as Google and FAST's AlltheWeb are in constant battle with search engine optimizers to rid databases of spam, some industry executives say spammers are winning.

Paul Gardi, senior vice president of search for AskJeeves, estimates that at least half of all Web pages crawled have no value and are likely created by spammers. The greater economic effect is that indices must store and crawl pages that are useless, as well as constantly tinker with a system to cut out junk marketers.

Spam may be best defined by its economic consequences, according to Wilson Sonsini's Kramer and ePrivacy Group's Everett-Church. But for Gardi, this kind of deception amply justifies the label.

"These are the same people who invade your e-mail box," he said. "Link spammers are trying to trick someone into going to a site in the hopes of them reading something or responding to it when they otherwise wouldn't go there. At the end of the day they've tricked the user who ends up having a bad experience."