Tag Archives: Yahoo! Mail

New in Gmail Labs: Smart Labels

New in Gmail Labs: Smart Labels

Wednesday, March 09, 2011 | 10:00 AM

Posted by Stanley Chen, Software Engineer

People get a lot of email these days. On top of personal messages, there are group mailing lists, social network notifications, credit card statements, newsletters you might have signed up for, and promotional email from a shopping site you used once months ago. Gmail’s filters and labels were invented to help manage the deluge, but while I have about 100 filters that triage and label my incoming mail, most of my friends and family have all their messages in a giant unfiltered inbox.

Last year, we launched Priority Inbox to automatically sort incoming email and help you focus on the messages that matter most. Today, we’re launching a complementary feature in Gmail Labs called Smart Labels, which helps you classify and organize your email. Once you turn it on from the Labs tab in Settings, Smart Labels automatically categorizes incoming Bulk, Notification and Forum messages, and labels them as such. “Bulk” mail includes any kind of mass mailing (such as newsletters and promotional email) and gets filtered out of your inbox by default (where you can easily read it later), “Notifications” are messages sent to you directly (like account statements and receipts), and email from group mailing lists gets labeled as “Forums.”

If you already use filters and labels to organize your mail, you may find that you can replace your existing filters with Smart Labels. If you’re picky like me and still want to hold on to your current organization system, Smart Labels play nice with other labels and filters too. On the Filters tab under Settings, you’ll find that these filters can be edited just like any others. From there, you can also edit your existing filters to avoid having them Smart Labeled or change whether mail in a Smart Label skips your inbox (which you can also do by just clicking on the label, then selecting or unselecting the checkbox in the top right corner).

Labs in Gmail are a great testing ground for experimental features, and we hope Smart Labels help you more effortlessly get through your inbox. If you notice a message that was automatically labeled incorrectly and want to help us troubleshoot, you can report miscategorizations from the drop down menu on each message (in doing so, you’ll donate the full message to our engineers so that we can improve the feature). Give it a try and send us feedback on how we can make it work better for you!

This could be interesting. One day they’ll use Bayesian filters and we won’t even have to set up filters of our own. One day.

Making Networks Do the Work

I don’t get overly excited about plug-ins but I think Xoopit may have shifted us into a new gear.

As part of a course I teach on journalist tools I do a demo of Gmail. I talk about it being the new desktop. But I’m only showing the bare bones of the thing: labels, filters, colors, stars.

For a lot of them, that’s an eye-opener in itself.

But it’s once you start talking about gadgets where you can access your calendar, your documents, your chat, then it really makes sense.

All good, but not really anything different to Outlook. Just lighter and accessible from anywhere.

But the arrival of an updated version of the plugin Xoopit, I think, really pitches webmail, well Gmail, into a new zone.

It has some basic stuff which is kinda useful. At the top is a row of picture attachments from recent emails:

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Not that useful for me, but useful.

There are also links to videos and files: click on one and it takes you to a full listing of attachments, listable by type, date received, etc. You can even search by sender: 

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But still that’s not what impressed me, and convinced me we’re on the threshold of something brand new.

Read an email thread and Xoopit will pluck out those people involved in the conversation. It will display them on the right hand side of the thread. Not only that; it will try to grab their Facebook profile and image—even if you’re not connected to them on Facebook:

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At a stroke I can now see who I’m talking to (in this case avoiding the catastrophe of misidentifying a woman as a man) and also see who we have in common:

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To me this raises all sorts of possibilities. Suddenly my networks are beginning to talk to each other, to mine each other for data and work to close the gaps in them. I’m suddenly much better informed about the people I’m dealing with, without having to do lots of legwork.

Of course, this would be better if it was also searching LinkedIn (or maybe instead searching LinkedIn, in that I’d rather connect that way to a professional contact first.)

But it’s still the first time I’ve seen leveraging like this done in such a simple and unobtrusive way. It fits into my way of working rather than a lot of these network leveragers I’ve seen, which add to the clutter or try to automate things which should  be manual.

More on that anon.

For now, congratulations Xoopit. I count this as the first step in a bright dawn of social networks and contact lists working for me rather than the other way around.

And I think it’s further proof that Gmail—or Yahoo! Mail, or any of the rich featured webmail offerings—are actually a workplace in themselves, around which can be built all sorts of useful tools mining our other networks.

Gmail’s Achilles’ Heel?

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I wondered what would happen when I reached the limit of my Gmail account, and now I know: I can buy more space. When I checked my account just now I found the message above and this one at the bottom of the page, in scary red:

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 By clicking on the purchase link I’m taken to a Google Accounts page, where I can buy more storage at the following rates:

  • 6 GB ($20.00 per year)
  • 25 GB ($75.00 per year)
  • 100 GB ($250.00 per year)
  • 250 GB ($500.00 per year)

Seems pretty reasonable — at least the 6GB one (and a kink in the armor of Google. As Google Operating System blog points out, Yahoo Mail is unlimited for free, Flickr is unlimited  for $25 a year, and there’s Microsoft SkyDrive.

So I signed up. The confirmation page had the sort of thing that reminds you you’re dealing with a company that still makes its money from selling you ads:

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And don’t expect the storage to appear immediately. Mine took two days and three emails to customer support for the order to be processed. Then a bar appeared below my inbox like this:

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While it’s good my problem’s been solved, it does indicate that Google aren’t just going to keep going releasing space to heavy users. I can’t imagine a lot of people using the space, so they can’t be expecting it to be a big earner. It’ll be interesting to see whether power users decide to jump ship to something cheaper. I won’t — for now.

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Yahoo’s Sleazy 360°Turn?

All my posts these days seem to be rants. Phishing toolbars that don’t work. PR people peddling the same old tired story line. Sorry about that. I’m not really an angry person. But anyway, here’s another: Yahoo!, I fear, is playing fast and loose again with my privacy and the truth.

As have other folk recently, I received this morning an email from Yahoo! 360 Alerts saying

Jeremy W,
Your Yahoo! Messenger contact wants to add you as a Friend in Yahoo! 360°. As Yahoo! 360° friends, you and can stay in touch through blogs, photos and much more.
On Yahoo! 360°, you always control who sees your content. If you do not accept the invitation, nothing happens, and can only see your public content.
Accept or decline the invitation by going to:
http://360.yahoo.com/friends/waiting_room.html

Click on the link and you find a list of your Yahoo! messenger buddies who are using the Yahoo! 360° service (a sort of community thang.) You’re encouraged to add the person as a friend (although to its credit Yahoo! has the default option as ‘decide later.’ Click ‘submit’ and you’re taken to another page of content from some of your buddies who are using the service. There is no ‘Messenger contact’. There is no ‘invitation’. (Unless you think Yahoo is your buddy. My argument is that it ain’t.)  

Needless to say, it’s all a ruse to draw you further into the Yahoo! realm. Nothing wrong with that, except that

  • the original email is misleading. It makes it sound as if some specific person has invited you to join a specific service. The etiquette in such cases is to accept, or at least to see what the invitation is all about. So it’s deliberately misleading in that it’s leveraging a social aspect of the Internet to suck users further into a service. It’s not too much to call this spam.
  • I received this email because I supposedly subscribed to Yahoo! alerts. I can find no evidence for this despite an hour’s digging around the Yahoo universe.

Actually, this is just a thin end of a large wedge. Yahoo!, I fear, and others are moving back into the personal information harvesting business.

Here’s the sorry tale of what seems to be  happening: The email tells me I got the email because “You received this email because you subscribed to Yahoo! Alerts”, something I wasn’t aware of. I’m able to click on a link which allows me to ‘unsubscribe’ from this alert but that doesn’t tell me how I ended up on this alerts list and whether I’m going to get any more. The ‘alerts’ homepage doesn’t look familiar and it’s a tad suspicious that the alert was the only I ever signed up for. This all sounds very spammy to me: the illusion of being able to unsubscribe from something you never subscribed to, with no guarantee you won’t be subscribed to something else whenever the spammer, sorry, Yahoo, feels like it. 

So I tried to take a more structural approach, accepting the offer in the email

To change your communications preferences for other Yahoo! business lines, please visit your Marketing Preferences.

This link to Marketing Preferences in the email — and on pages such as the privacy page and the Marketing help page — isn’t a link to that page at all but a link to a page that, as it puts it:

Please visit your Yahoo! Account Information pages to view or edit your marketing communication preference.

(It may not mean anything, but the Web Archive, which archives much of the Internet, has no record of the Marketing Preferences page in question, http://subscribe.yahoo.com/showaccount, since April 28 2006. Could it be that Yahoo changed its policy then, and has not updated its own internal links since? )

If I click on the Account Information link I’m taken to a page of personal details where I’m asked to enter my postcode. In fact, if I enter no postcode I cannot go any further unless I choose an obscure country which Yahoo doesn’t know or care about:

Needless to say, the account information page is no help, and is in fact an effort to prise further data from you.

Once you’ve been forced to hoodwink Yahoo! into thinking you live in Zimbabwe, you’re taken to another account information page, nowhere in which is there any link to Marketing Preferences or anything else that sounds like it could let you opt out of the spurious 360 degree thang. By then I’m beginning to perspire from frustration.

Click on ‘Finished’ and, while half wishing it meant either you or the whole Yahoo! website was sucked into a black hole, you’re taken to your personalized homepage, which once again has no mention of marketing preferences. ( Digging around for help is no help, since there are only a bunch of questions there and no option to search for more.) Realizing children were born in less time than it was taking me to opt out of more Yahoo! alerts I gave up; I never could find the marketing preferences page.

In the end I find all this a bit misleading and unworthy of an institution like Yahoo!. Of course, this is nothing new: Back in 2002 users fumed over unilateral changes to Yahoo!’s marketing preferences page which reset the default for all users to opt in for spam. Seems like Yahoo might be again playing fast and loose in a bid to bolster sagging consumer interest.

The bottom line: Is what they’re doing in accordance with their privacy policy? I fear not. In their privacy page they say:

We reserve the right to send you certain communications relating to the Yahoo! service, such as service announcements, administrative messages and the Yahoo! Newsletter, that are considered part of your Yahoo! account, without offering you the opportunity to opt-out of receiving them.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of these cover getting spurious invitations from Yahoo! messenger buddies. I’m going to ask Yahoo to comment once the Thanksgiving turkey is done. Yahoo has some great services, but misleading me into signing up for another one is not the way to my heart.

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Plaxo Moves Into Macland

Plaxo, the software and service that lets you update your contact details with others — and lets them update theirs with you — automatically, is now available for Mac. A press release issued today (thanks, Joseph) says the move “represents a major step toward the company’s vision to offer the first truly universal personal contact management service, accessible on any platform, email client, browser, or mobile device.”

This is an interesting way of putting it. Plaxo has weathered the criticism about privacy concerns — some of them from this humble blog, despite my support for the service as a whole — to expand beyond Microsoft Outlook to America Online, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Outlook Express. Users can also import contacts from their Netscape, Palm, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail accounts.

Like a lot of folk I’m torn over a service like this. On the one hand I can see the obvious benefits: Who better to update the contacts in your address book than the contacts themselves? But on the other hand, how many of the contacts in your address book would be happy that the information is being stored on some company server somewhere, without their knowledge or consent? Then again, that last sentence looks less problematic than it did a year or so back. We’ve heard so many cautionary tales about private data getting lost, stolen or abused maybe we think this kind of thing isn’t important. Now, perhaps, we realise that Plaxo is not really the problem here. The problem lies in those companies deliberating collecting data on individuals, whether they’re ordinary Joes like you and me, or members of the CIA, as the Chicago Tribune recently discovered by searching a commercial online data service.

But I’m not sure that’s the case. The bottom line is complex: We should be as careful with other people’s data as we are with our own. If we don’t want a company to keep details of us we shouldn’t keep details of other people online. Of course, this refers as much to any web-based application or storage tool or networking site.

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Yahoo Grabs Oddpost

I hate people who quote themselves, but here goes: A few months back I wrote in my column about how “eventually, RSS will replace e-mail. Or rather, it will dovetail with e-mail so that it appears in the same place, in the same program, so you can read Aunt Edna’s newsletter as well as the news feed of your favourite football team.” I also mentioned a great little program/service called Oddpost, which I said came closest to this ideal: “One great example of this is Oddpost, a subscription e-mail service that folds nearly all of what I’ve just outlined into one place, from RSS feeds to your Web mail accounts.”

Well, for once it seems I may have not been too far off the mark. Last week Yahoo! bought Oddpost for an undisclosed sum. The folks at Oddpost write that “from this day forward, we’ll be working on a new, advanced Yahoo! Mail product (one that, in press release terms, might be described as “a powerful combination of our award-winning web application technology with the world’s #1 Internet brand and email service”)”.

Unfortunately new users won’t be able to sign up for Oddpost in the meantime, but this represents a significant move for the whole merger of Blogs/email/RSS. In part, of course, it’s Yahoo playing desperate catch-up with Google over Gmail and search. But it may end up as more than that. As Iam Bumpa puts it: “This is about RIAs (rich internet apps), integrated web services and open standards being fused with productivity software, micro-content and social networking and offered as hosted experiences.” In short, putting lots of different bits and pieces in one place that you can really control, and access from anywhere. Think of it as MyYahoo! but one that doesn’t look like something out of the mid 1990s.

Is Gmail Not The First To Scan Emails?

(See this later posting for a response from MSN and Yahoo.)

Here’s possible evidence that Gmail is not alone in scanning your email in order to target ads at you.

MarketingVOX (‘The Voice of Online Marketing’) reports that “the strange mix of privacy advocates, anti-globalists and anti-commercial groups that seem to be swarming on Google in hopes of preventing the company from providing its new Gmail service might be surprised to find out that the other free email providers already do exactly what the groups seem to find offensive.”

It says that Yahoo Mail “allows for searching emails”, while Hotmail “appears to target ads based on message content”. MarketingVOX says its own investigation “revealed that different free email sites include different levels of interaction with message content”, although it did acknowledge that “since the testing was anecdotal, the email engines may be merely coincidentally providing relevant ads.” MarketingVOX was not successful in getting responses from the companies in question, although Yahoo pointed the reporter to the company’s privacy policy.

The colourful language aside, MarketingVOX raises an interesting possibility: That this kind of thing has been going on and we just didn’t know it. But does that make Gmail OK? I’d argue not. Just because it may have been happening doesn’t mean folk would find it acceptable. Indeed, there may be some legal questions lurking out there if it transpires some email providers have been scanning content to deliver ads.

It’s hard to imagine that Yahoo do scan emails because the wording of their privacy policy appears to expressly rule it out: “Yahoo!’s practice is not to use addressing information or the content of messages stored in your Yahoo! Mail account for marketing purposes.” I couldn’t find anything on Hotmail’s privacy policy. I’ll ping Yahoo and Hotmail and see what they say.

Yahoo Cuts Loose With Its Own Search Engine

Yahoo has cut loose from Google and now offers a very passable search engine of its own.

Yahoo today announced that it has deployed its own algorithmic search technology on Yahoo Search. Starting today, “the company will begin rolling out the new Yahoo! Search Technology and expects to continue the process on a worldwide basis over the next several weeks”.

A brief fiddle shows it’s pretty good, and will give Google a run for its money. It also lots of cool new features, according to the company’s press release:

  • A new search service that integrates Yahoo! Search with My Yahoo! by adding links to XML/RSS site syndication content in search results. This service enables users to search for millions of sites that support this format and easily add them to their My Yahoo! personal homepage. Once added to their page, users will see instantly updated headlines and links from these sites, keeping them in touch with all of their important information from the Internet in a single place.
  • Yahoo! Search has combined its own proprietary anti-spam technology with the talents of its team of editorial experts and Yahoo! Mail’s leading SpamGuard technology to help filter out irrelevant, redundant or low-quality URLs and links. Taking advantage of the synergies between Yahoo! Search and Yahoo! Mail, these two services will share data to reduce spam and further improve the user experience across Yahoo!.
  • Yahoo! Search Technology is already integrated into Yahoo! News Search and the award-winning Yahoo! Product Search and going forward will be leveraged into other areas of Yahoo!, including Yahoo! Travel, Yahoo! Local, Yahoo! Personals and Yahoo! HotJobs. In addition, Yahoo! Search Technology will power search for Overture’s algorithmic search partners and will be made available to future customers.

As CNET reported earlierYahoo dropped Google as the default search technology provider for its U.S.-based sites late Tuesday, “signaling the beginning of the end for the Web’s most high-profile marriage of convenience”. But the new search engine is not without controversy: CNET says that Yahoo plans to make money by charging companies for more rapid and frequent inclusion into its index –a program called ‘paid inclusion’. CNET writes: “Such programs have come under fire by industry watchers and federal regulators, which charge that their commercially oriented nature can taint results and mislead Web surfers without proper labeling.  Google does not offer a paid inclusion program.”

It’ll be interesting to see how they fare. I’ve never quite understand the attraction of the old Yahoo search engine; they never really found what you wanted unless it was obvious, and their directories were less than up to date or comprehensive.

And of course from a marketing point of view, all this has serious implications, which I’ll go into later. For me the most important thing is that the search for loose wire ends up with this humble blog top on both Google and Yahoo Search.

News: The Spam Filter That Might Be

 Yet another spam option: Starfield Technologies, Inc., sister company of domain registrar GoDaddy.com, has announced Spam Xploder which uses Bayesian filtering technology to intercept spam at the server level before reaching a user’s mailbox. Spam Xploder works with several e-mail programs, including Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express. Folk with Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or any IMAP- or POP3-based account can retrieve and filter their mail via Starfield’s Web-Based Email or the Spam Xploder Management Client.
 
I for one was not impressed: I couldn’t access their website. Unless it’s a Net quirk, I’d counsel folk that they make sure their website is up and running before they release a product.
 

Loose Wire — Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored?

Ever found yourself wondering if the e-mail you sent your boss/aunt/long-lost friend was actually read? Here’s some new software to help you keep tabs

By Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 May 2003

This column first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., used with permission)

If you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies, you probably should stop reading now. If you don’t, I have a solution to questions you’re bound to have asked yourself at one point or another, such as “Has the boss read my e-mail asking for a raise yet?” or “How can I check that everyone got the invite to my Tupperware party?” and “Why hasn’t Auntie Mabel thanked me for my thoughtful, but somewhat cheap, birthday e-greeting?”. The answer: MSGTAG.

No, it’s not compulsory labelling for monosodium glutamate, that charming flavour enhancer. MSGTAG is short for MessageTag, and it’s a way to see whether or not e-mails have been read by the recipient. Right now, if you send an e-mail you have little or no way of checking whether someone received it, let alone actually read it. Some programs allow you to request an automatic acknowledgement that an e-mail’s been received — or even opened — but the option depends a lot on what software the recipient is using, and the settings. Most of the time you’re firing blind when you send an e-mail.

Enter MessageTag, from New Zealand software-development company eCOSM Ltd. Install the MSGTAG software and, in most cases, it will automatically reconfigure your e-mail software to add a glob of code to the bottom of any e-mail you send (to those of you in the know, it’s an HTML image reference) which assigns the e-mail a unique ID number. When the recipient opens their e-mail, the glob of code sends a message back to the MSGTAG server, or computer. That computer makes a note of the ID, and the time the message was received. It then matches the ID with the MSGTAG user, and the matching e-mail, and notifies the user the e-mail has been opened, and when. Voila.

I found it worked like a charm. The free version does the final step — sending a notification that an e-mail has been opened — by e-mail, whereas the fully functioning version, called MSGTAG Status, runs a separate program that lists all the e-mails you’ve sent, and then flags those that have been opened.

To me it’s a very useful tool. Having to alert friends that a party had been cancelled at the last minute, I was able to monitor who had opened their e-mails and who hadn’t. Sending e-mail to PR folk suddenly gets a lot easier since I can tell who has opened it and who is ignoring me, and who has either moved, died, or hasn’t yet figured how to use the e-mail program.

The basic idea is not new. Several other companies offer similar products: the most promising, HaveTheyReadItYet (www.havetheyreadityet.com), only works with Outlook and Outlook Express for now, though other versions are planned. The free version allows users to monitor the progress of five e-mails at a time; more than that and you have to buy digital stamps at $5 each. Another option is SentThere , which allows you either to send and monitor e-mails in the same way as MSGTAG, or to use a special mini-e-mail program. I couldn’t get this one to work. Other products, such as South Korea-based Postel and OpenTrace didn’t respond to e-mail queries, an irony not lost on me.

Still, after using MSGTAG for a week, I was hooked. Which is where the obsessive/compulsive bit comes in. I found myself eagerly monitoring my “Status” window to see whether my e-mail had been read, and then found myself wondering why the person hadn’t replied immediately. One guy, a friend I hadn’t heard from for nearly a decade, opened my mail but still, nearly a week on, hasn’t written back. He is definitely not coming to my wedding, if I have one. I can see all sorts of new neuroses coming out of all this.

That’s not the only danger. Privacy advocates claim it’s an invasion of privacy to covertly monitor when an e-mail is read. Beyond that, the argument goes, users could also find out other information about, for example, whether and to whom the e-mail may be forwarded and how long they spent reading the e-mail (“What? They only spent 10 seconds reading my account of my summer trip to Graceland?”).

I don’t really see this is a privacy issue. Send a text message from many hand-phones and you can obtain a message informing you of its delivery — which only works when the phone is switched on and in the coverage area. Likewise, sending registered mail, or packages, enables the sender to obtain similar information. Users may take some getting used to this, but I think it can only enhance the usefulness of e-mail to have some way of checking whether it actually ended up where it was supposed to.

That said, I do have some gripes: At $60 the Status program is a bit steep. And it will only work if you are using HTML e-mail — the fancy version where you can change font styles, insert pictures and view Web-page-style newsletters. And MSGTAG won’t, for now, work on Microsoft Exchange servers, undermining its effectiveness for corporate users. Having said all that, I found most MSGTAG e-mails worked, and now I’m not sure what I’ll do without it. Of course, I’m now losing sleep sitting in front of the PC monitoring whether my e-mails are getting read. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

June 26 2003: MSGTAG is no longer available in a free version. Read on here.