vigilance stalling delivery of legitimate business e-mail
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First
published in Business
5-11, 2004; issue 780; High Tech Office
Say the word "Internet" and we tend to think of the billions of Web
pages filled with everything from online sales to trivia to porn. But
arguably, e-mail is more vital to the way many of us work, providing
near-instant speed while leaving behind a digital record of our
Of course that assumes that mail always goes through.
Last June, a colleague responded to an e-mail of mine he had just
received; he wondered why I had sent him what seemed like old news
about Apple's wireless Airport hardware. When we checked the normally
hidden message headers, we discovered that I'd sent the e-mail on
January 11 ... 2000, four and a half years earlier.
What had been a timely message when it was sent had somehow wandered
around the Net for nearly half a decade before arriving at its
A recent Australian study concluded that some 1.6 per cent of e-mail
messages don't make it to their recipients. University of New South
Wales lecturer Tim Moors
up e-mail accounts with a broad range of services and sent out hundreds
of test messages. The messages were short and nearly contentless to
reduce the risk of having them removed by spam filters. Every one of
the e-mail accounts "lost" at least some of the messages, in many cases
providing no notice to the sender that the mail had not made it to the
recipient. One service failed to deliver 10 per cent of the messages
sent to it.
A separate problem arises with spam filtering. A report released last
spring by Return Path
company that measures e-mail performance, found that the largest 16
U.S. Internet Service Providers were incorrectly labelling an average
of 19 per cent of legitimate business-to-consumer e-mails as spam,
tossing them into rarely-accessed Junk Folders.
Earthlink had the best performance, with a still-high error rate of
seven per cent. The worst service had a false positive rate of 37 per
cent in this study, which was carried out in the last half of 2003.
Return Path's study looked at 30,000 messages that were either
transaction confirmations, orders or opt-in newsletters requested by
The company notes that the percentage of legitimate business messages
getting through has gone down consistently over the two years that it
has carried out these surveys. Spam filtering, whether by third-party
services like Frontbridge or Postini, by software installed on business
or ISP networks or by users on their desktops, has dramatically reduced
the amount of spam appearing in many users' inboxes. But as Return
Path's surveys suggest, this might be coming at the expense of wrongly
filtering out many legitimate business messages.
Businesses need to make an effort to ensure that their e-mailed
receipts and newsletters don't look like spam. Set up a series of dummy
test accounts with various e-mail services and check to see whether
your e-mail is being received.
And end-users need to get in the habit of regularly checking what's
been dumped in their Junk Folders. (Some ISPs make this hard to do;
they should hear about your dissatisfaction with this.) Services like
Frontbridge and Postini seem to have the best record of avoiding these
sorts of false-positives, but even so, users should check what's being
Of course, this assumes that a message makes it far enough to be
filtered out. As the Australian study suggests, a sizable number of
your messages may not be making it to the recipient at all. So if you
send me a message and I don't respond, maybe it's because I never
received your message in the first place. Try the phone.