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Jun 03, 2004

Special Report on Google Gmail: Six Concerns & Three Solutions for Emailers

SUMMARY: We expect Google's new Gmail service to launch in roughly 60-75 days. In the meantime, MarketingSherpa Editor Janet Roberts has been giving her beta Gmail account a thorough workout. Here's what she's learned for you on:

- How AdSense ads appear next to your messages
- Danger: $30 press releases can show up in new "related Pages" section
- Four more potential problems Gmail poses for bulk emailers

Yes, includes some recommended solutions, plus five screenshots so you can see Gmail in action:
By MarketingSherpa Editor Janet Roberts

Worried about the ads Google serves into its Gmail email service? That could be the least of your problems.

Yes, you could find a competitor's ad right next to your customer's order confirmation, your company email newsletter or a solo ad mailing.

But, Gmail also currently blocks all of your ads and images on download. Senders may not be able to track opens and click rates properly. And, Gmail could deliver a body blow to viral marketing, not to mention disappearing permission mailers' messages without a trace in the spam folder.

Google's free, Web-based Gmail service is still in beta testing right now, with an estimated few thousand users; so, its effect right now on your email operation should be minimal. However, if it launches essentially as-is within a few months, it will be one bulk-email-unfriendly service.

Baseline: Currently Gmail is designed to:

1. Maximize AdSense revenues.

2. Drive traffic to Google News (where more AdSense ads are served.)

3. "Protect" users from commercial mail by blocking HTML and filtering extremely heavily (without much discrepancy between permission mail and spam.)

All of which makes sense - Google has to make money and protect its brand image as the purer-than-other-portals site (ie. blocking pop-ups, etc.) However, it makes life more difficult for emailers.

Here's a run-down of what you need to know.... (Note: Google reps initially offered to answer our questions, but then were not able to speak after all. We'll keep trying, and in the meantime the info in this article is based on our own beta account experiences, input from several reputable email broadcast vendors, and the recently expanded Gmail FAQ page (link below.)

Basics - Gmail 101

The company has not announced a launch date, but some Google-watchers expect it will happen quietly, maybe during mid-summer.

Gmail's Web site looks like most Web-based email services. After users sign in with name and password, the system downloads a menu with new mail and folders: new mail, "All Mail" (the big 1GB archive that is supposed to be Gmail's big attraction), sent mail, spam and trash.

On the menu page, users can label or highlight an individual email (Gmail calls it a "conversation") to help with searching later, report the email as spam, open it in a new window or print it.

If the new email is part of an ongoing thread, the system shows both old and new conversations in one entry, as well as any subsequent emails on the same topic. The user can either see just the newest message or expand the entire conversation to show all the email messages.

After opening a message, the user can either star it or label it and click the "Archive" button, which sends it to All Mail. You can trash an email, but Gmail tries hard to talk you out of it.

Our first impression: The 1GB storage is nice, for emailers as well as users, because it means fewer messages will bounce because the mailbox is over its storage quota.

Gmail doesn't have the same options and features as Yahoo!'s free service, which it most closely resembles, but it doesn't force users to browse the Web from within the Gmail browser when exploring links from emails, the way Hotmail does.

How AdSense ads appear

AdSense text ads (for now) show up at the right edge of the email window, under a "Sponsored Links" header. Technically, they're not part of the email, but if a message creative doesn't have a clearly defined right vertical border, AdSense ads do appear to the viewer to be an integral part of the message.

Example: any newsletter we received that either mentioned ink cartridges or carried an ad for replacement ink cartridges always carried a Google ad for ink cartridges. A Washington Post newsletter that included a Pier One promotional link and photo for patio umbrellas generated a string of Google ads for patio umbrellas and equipment.

Google's been waffling on the issue of trademark protection when it comes to serving these ads. Even if they decide in favor of it (which appears to be unlikely), your direct competitors could certainly target your messages using other terms or phrases that aren't trademarked, but frequently appear in your messages.

Your standard and autoresponder (canned) messages, such as welcomes, sales receipts, and shipping notices, plus any always-included wording in newsletters, are probably the easiest for a competitor to target.

Danger: $30 press releases can show up in new "related Pages" section

Directly under any AdSense ads next to email messages, Gmail often also posts another section entitled "Related Pages."

These text links appear to us to be triggered by keywords in the message body (which makes sense) and to lead to related articles in Google News. You should be concerned about this for two reasons:

1. More hotlinks equals more distractions from your message

2. Google News carries press releases from PRNewswire, BusinessWire, PRWeb and other wire services in its archives for 28-days. For just $30 (the cost of putting a release on PRWeb that reaches Google News), your competitor can hope their release will show up next to your related email messages for almost a month.

In our beta of Gmail, AdSense and "related pages" links didn't appear follow a regular pattern. Some emails showed up without ads or links, including third-party ad emails that should have been ad magnets, such as diet aids and financial investments.

Google promises to serve only "family-friendly" ads in Gmail messages, but that's about it. Yes, you can see a competitor's ad in the same screen as your email, but it doesn't happen every time.

Four more potential problems Gmail poses for bulk emailers

#1. Gmail blocks all HTML on download.

For now, say good-bye to the little 1x1-pixel image that tracks whether recipients opened your email. Gmail does not display images unless the user clicks the "Display External Images" link at the top of each email. You can't change your settings to open those images, either, as you can with Outlook 2003 and Yahoo!.

This applies to all HTML ads, logos, pictures and other graphics -- any image that calls your server to download on opening.

Google explains why in its user guide:

"Many marketing or spam messages include hidden "web bugs" embedded in external images. Typically, when these images are loaded, the web bugs signal that the email address is active, thereby helping companies further perfect their recipient list for marketing or spam messages. Not loading external images helps to prevent this."

#2. Gmail may someday block click tracking.

Google also says it "minimizes" the information in referrer headers: "When you click on links in messages, the Web browser that loads contains a referrer header. When you click on links in Gmail, Google takes steps to eliminate this referrer header, preventing others from knowing that you clicked on a link from an email."

This sounds like mailers will be getting much less information from messages sent. However, according to several reputable email broadcast firms we've asked who are also tracking Gmail carefully, link tracking is not turned off yet.

So, we don't know exactly what the impact of minimizing will be, but will keep you posted.

#3. Gmail messes up HTML email forwarding.

When a Gmail recipient forwards an HTML email to someone else, it forwards only as text, and the ad links disappear. This isn't unusual for free email services - both Yahoo and Hotmail do this in some way (for example, Yahoo's default is to send the text-version.) They do it because it reduces server load, thus slimming their costs of providing forwarding.

However, it means your Gmail users will be much less valuable to your viral-marketing efforts if you depend on HTML images to convey your message or convert viewers to clickers.
#4. Gmail "disappears" much bulk email in the spam folder.

Gmail's filters appear to us to be tough to overcome, even if your message is a double opt-in item the user wanted. Google's techs will probably continually tweak the filters, but let's face it, they have a much higher incentive to eliminate possible spam than to make sure wanted bulk email gets through.

If your email trips a Gmail or user spam filter, it will end up in the Spam folder. Par for the course these days, but the menu currently does not indicate that the folder has anything in it. If your user doesn't know or bother to check the folder, your email will languish there.

It doesn't look as if Gmail cleans out the spam folder on a schedule yet, but we assume that will happen soon.

On the bright side: Gmail does give users a "Not Spam" button, which moves email from the spam folder to the inbox. It also seems to apply right away instead of waiting for a critical mass to develop. All email from the four senders whose messages diverted to the spam folder went to the inbox on the next delivery.

Three Ways to Make Gmail Work for You

Your first reaction might be to ban all Gmail users from your database the way some publishers and marketers ban AOL or free-email services. Don't do it. Here's why:

-- Gmail is still in beta testing. Lots could change between now and the public launch.

-- Gmail addresses are solid gold because they are active and owned by people who care about their email. If they opted in to get your emails, they won't find Gmail's hurdles insurmountable.

-- Instead, treat Gmail users the way you do older-version AOL users, Lotus Notes and anybody else whose email clients mangle messages and urge them to choose your text version.

Here are three things you can do now to stay on top of Gmail's challenges:

#1. Create a good-looking text version of your email. Text fares better than HTML on every count in Gmail. See the earlier MarketingSherpa where we outlined the necessary elements of a good text mailing.

#2. Experiment with tweaks to both your HTML and text mailings that defines the right edge of your email. This in effect fences off the Gmail ads from your own material. You can use something as simple as a thin vertical line or box around your copy (a 1-point rule or box in page-design terminology.).

#3. Chart subscriptions by domain to see if you're getting many from If the number remains minuscule, then you haven't lost too much valuable information.

Useful links related to this story:

Screenshots of how email newsletters from Washington Post, MarketingSherpa, FlowGo, and MarketingVOX appear in Gmail:

Gmail and Privacy FAQ:

Text-Only Email Design Pitfalls & Guidelines: More Critical Than Ever

See Also:

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