What's Behind AOL's About-Face Over Whitelist, Goodmail?

Now that the dust is settling from AOL saying it will charge a fee to ensure consistent delivery of commercial e-mail with images and links, e-mail senders are looking at the benefits and drawbacks of the program.

AOL said in late January that it would phase out its Enhanced Whitelist as it adds the Goodmail CertifiedEmail program over the next few months, but executives later decided to keep the whitelist after an industry uproar.

“It was important for us to maintain a [Standard] Whitelist and an Enhanced Whitelist for free, as well as to offer a Goodmail program,” AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said.

Though AOL still encourages senders to sign up for the Goodmail system, it is making clear that the program is optional. In addition, CertifiedEmail may cost less than some thought. Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras estimated the cost at 0.25 cents per e-mail but that rates would fall once more senders sign up.

“As we get an overall sense of the value [to senders], it will be appropriate for us to set a fair market rate,” he said.

Senders using CertifiedEmail will see a 3,000 percent return on investment, Gingras claimed, because the system bypasses spam filters of partner ISPs, thus improving delivery, open rates and click-through rates.

Though Goodmail suggests that e-mail senders still work with DomainKeys, Microsoft's Sender ID and other authentication systems, Gingras said its certification goes a step beyond those programs.

“The token is unique to each message — we do have that message-level security — and it is signed by Goodmail, not by the sender,” he said.

CertifiedEmail won't be live “for the next several weeks,” Gingras said. However, after the storm of controversy, e-mail senders and others said AOL and Goodmail won't soon see a flood of senders sign up.

Goodmail has only two formally announced customers: The New York Times and the American Red Cross. Others who are testing it do not yet want their names released. The Red Cross, which is trying CertifiedEmail free for a year, hopes to have the program in place by summer.

“We want to protect our donors from phishing scams or fraud. We think that having that e-mail certification will reassure our donors that the e-mail they're receiving is actually coming from the Red Cross,” spokeswoman Sarah Marchetti said. “Overall, we think the idea is positive that 100 percent of the e-mails sent to AOL and Yahoo accounts will get through.”

Marchetti estimated that 20 percent of Red Cross e-mails don't reach recipients' inboxes.

Goodmail donated the program for a year, though the Red Cross may opt to continue with CertifiedEmail afterward.

“We may find that it is extremely valuable and want to pay for it, but we've got to test it first,” Marchetti said.

Gingras said nonprofits get discounts to use the program.

In November, Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at The New York Times Co., said the Times signed up for CertifiedEmail to “help us ensure that our readers receive timely and appropriate communications that are authentic and safe to open.” The Times plans to use the service for its online properties, including NYTimes.com, About.com and Boston.com.

'Dead on Arrival'

E-mail service providers and others had various views on CertifiedEmail, Goodmail and AOL. David Hughes, CEO of anti-spam provider Reflexion Network Solutions, Boston, called AOL's proposal “dead on arrival.”

“Many people will see this as a transparent attempt to develop a new revenue stream despite the company's facade of good intentions,” he said.

And though Goodmail and AOL tout the technology as a way to combat spam and phishing, some e-mail senders don't think it is the answer.

“Goodmail only addresses the honest e-mail sender. It doesn't address phishing scams,” said Richard Ord, CEO of iEntry, which sends 50 million e-newsletters for clients monthly.

The new system might even harm some of his clients' brands, even though they are all double opt-in subscriptions, because “e-mail does not look too good when images don't show up,” he said.

Des Cahill, CEO of e-mail reputation firm Habeas, Mountain View, CA, agreed.

“If Goodmail customers get a checkmark that they're a worthy sender, does that mean that all the other e-mail is not trustworthy?” he asked.

Cahill contends that accountable e-mail systems should help senders improve their processes, not “penalize them into getting better.”

More than fighting spam, Goodmail's technology will help companies improve their reputation, said George Schlossnagle, co-founder and vice president of engineering at OmniTI Computer Consulting, which, along with Strongmail Systems, is partnering to provide Goodmail technology to its clients.

“It's certainly the intention at AOL and Yahoo … to provide higher delivery and provide a mechanism for companies to protect their brand,” he said.

Though AOL had said it would work only with Goodmail, it recently changed its tune when ESPs said it should be one of several e-mail reputation services offered on a voluntary basis. Habeas, Return Path and others all offer similar services.

“Our door is always open,” Graham said. “We have had conversations with many of those providers.”

Christine Blank covers online marketing and advertising, including e-mail marketing and paid search, for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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