Microsoft Hotmail Tackles Unwanted Graymail

There are many security tools dedicated to blocking spam and malicious email from user inboxes, but Microsoft is the only one blocking newsletters and limited-time offers.

Not all unwanted email flooding inboxes can be classified as spam, and Microsoft appears to be one of the few companies paying attention to cleaning up the other types of emails that get through spam filters.

Malicious email, or messages specifically sent to distribute malware, is usually not defined as spam, according to Avi Turiel, director of product marketing at Commtouch. While the messages may look like spam, promising information about a product or topic of interest, the messages are different from traditional spam that focuses on "product marketing," Turiel wrote on the Commtouch Caf??« blog.

Even after "true" spam and malicious email are blocked thanks to spam filters and email security applications, more than half of the messages in a typical user inbox are still unwanted, according to Dick Craddock, Hotmail's group program manager. About 50 percent of mail can be classified as newsletters and deals, 17 percent as social updates from various Websites, 9 percent from group distribution lists, and 6 percent are shopping receipts and commerce-related notifications, Craddock wrote on the Inside Windows Live blog.

Actual, bona-fide communication with people accounts for only 14 percent of the inbox, Craddock said. Microsoft calls the remaining 75 percent "graymail."

"The same message that one person thinks is 'spam' could be really important to another person. It's not black and white," Craddock wrote.

To help users find that 14 percent of wanted mail, Microsoft announced at a media event on Oct. 3 new tools for its Windows Live Hotmail email service designed to combat graymail. The changes are being rolled out and will reach all users by the end of the year, Microsoft said.

On other major Webmail services, some of the functionality Microsoft has announced can be achieved by judicial use of filters. For example, users can create a filter on Google's Gmail service to immediately categorize all messages from a specific sender or delete it. Microsoft has made the process somewhat automatic, as Hotmail can now detect newsletters and categorize them immediately. There is no need for the user to create a new filter for each newsletter as they arrive.

For users who no longer want to receive newsletters or mailing list messages, Microsoft has also simplified the process to unsubscribe. In short, it takes care of it. The service will complete the process if the newsletter offers an unsubscribe mechanism. Otherwise, Hotmail just blocks future messages-again, something that can be done if the user manually creates a filter on other services.

Hotmail's Mailbox Sweep also could be mimicked by filters, but a new enhancement takes it beyond what other services can do. Sweep currently allows users to check an email and move all messages from the same address out of the Inbox or delete it, including future messages, in one fell swoop. The enhanced Scheduled Sweep lets users specify an expiration date for mail sent from a specific sender, or just keep the latest message from that sender. This would be particularly handy for keeping track of limited-time offers and coupons.

Microsoft also rolled out "Instant Actions," or buttons that appear when the user hovers the mouse over a message entry. The buttons allow the message to be deleted, flagged or marked as "read," or to use the Sweep function without having to navigate any menus. The actions are customizable, such as creating a custom folder to move messages into.

Microsoft officials acknowledged at the press event that Hotmail suffers from a perception problem. Windows Live Hotmail remains the world's largest Webmail service, with approximately 350 million users, followed by Yahoo and Google's Gmail service, according to comScore numbers provided by Microsoft. However, in the United States, Yahoo is the largest with 96.6 million active users, Gmail with 62.7 million users and Hotmail with a mere 45.5 million users.

Hotmail is also frequently considered a slow, old-fashioned and spam-plagued email service with small attachment size limits, but that was Hotmail back in 2006, according to Brian Hall, a Microsoft director, speaking with journalists at the press event. Microsoft has improved Hotmail significantly in recent years, making it faster and drastically reducing spam from 35 percent of the inbox contents to less than 3 percent, Hall said.