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Gmail's 'unsubscribe' tool comes out of the weeds

An 'unsubscribe' link would appear prominently at the header of some emails

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service
February 20, 2014 08:23 PM ET

IDG News Service - Gmail users who get frustrated trying to find the "unsubscribe" link that's often buried in small type at the bottom of promotional emails may instead start seeing it before they even open the message.

Starting this week, a new, clearly marked "unsubscribe" link will appear at the top of the header field in marketers' emails. Previously only appearing for a small percentage of users, the feature will now be made available for most promotional messages with unsubscribe options, Google said on Thursday. Email recipients do not need to take action for the links to appear.

The change simply makes it easier to find the "unsubscribe" link. With the new setup, the link appears prominently at the top of the message, alongside the name and email address of the person or company sending it. So what used to be like searching for a needle in a haystack will, for some, become more like an open invitation to say good-bye. By clicking the link, users can opt out of a company's emails without leaving Gmail.

Though the tool might seem useful to consumers, it could be a business killer for companies looking to grow their customers online. But Google is actually releasing it to help businesses become more transparent and to prevent their promotional emails from being marked as spam.

"One of the biggest problems with the Gmail spam filter is identifying unwanted mail or soft spam," said Google's Vijay Eranti, who heads anti-abuse efforts at Gmail. The issue, he said, is that sometimes customers opt into a company's send-to list but later decide they don't want the emails. And if they can't find the unsubscribe button, sometimes they mark the message as spam.

When they report the message as spam, that sends a signal to Google. If enough people report the messages as spam, Google's system may classify the sender a spammer. In the long run, that could cause delivery problems for all of the company's emails.

"We want to empower users with an easy way to control what they want to receive," Eranti said. The tool was announced in front of an audience of email marketing professionals at an industry conference in San Francisco held by M3AAWG, an anti-abuse messaging group.

Google is trying to strike the right balance to keep ordinary Gmail users happy without alienating business users. "We want our users to not have spam, and we also want you to reach the user," Elie Bursztein, who leads Google's anti-abuse research, told conference attendees.

To help email marketers see whether other groups were using their systems to spam customers, Google also said Thursday that it was piloting a new reporting, or feedback loop, program. Companies must comply with Google's bulk sender guidelines to be eligible for the pilot.

The unsubscribe button is one of a series of Gmail "quick action buttons" introduced for use in emails. Some of those shortcuts include tools for changing restaurant reservations, launching Google Docs files and responding to event invitations.

Google made another big move to filter the Gmail inbox last year, separating emails into different inboxes for categories such as Social and Promotions. Users can opt out of that organization method.

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