No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, politics and email can stir up strong emotions.
For years, email senders and stakeholders have questioned if spam placement is politically biased. Recently, a study found that Gmail (as well as Yahoo and Microsoft) flagged Republican political emails as spam at a higher rate than those of their Democratic counterparts.
The study resulted in several critical statements from both representatives of the Republican Party and those defending Google’s algorithm.
In short, plenty. On August 11th, 2022, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) approved a program requested by Google, that would allow political senders including candidates, parties, or political action committees (PACs) to apply to be part of a political mail spam filtering pilot program.
This is how Gmail described the pilot in their request:
“Once an Eligible Participant is accepted into the pilot, as long as its emails do not contain content prohibited by Gmail’s terms of service such as phishing, malware, or illegal content, and comply with program requirements, those emails will not be affected by forms of spam detection to which they would otherwise be subject.
The placement of those emails into users’ inbox folders or spam folders will instead rely on direct feedback from each user. The user may provide this feedback upon receiving the first or a subsequent email from the sender. Additionally, pilot participants will receive information about the rate at which their emails are delivered into Gmail users’ inboxes as opposed to spam folders (“Inboxing Rate”).“
Read the full Advisory Opinion Request, hosted by the FEC, here.
Note: The approved FEC ruling was only to confirm that the pilot could legally proceed. As of the date of publishing, Google has not announced if or how they will be moving forward with this pilot.
Inbox providers like Google know that the quality of their inbox experience is what keeps users happy and prevents them from changing inbox providers.
As such, their top priority is to protect the user experience and protect user inboxes from unwanted emails.
They do so by monitoring the behavior of bulk email senders to establish a “reputation” for senders. They also use a complex algorithm to determine if incoming mail is wanted or spam.
How exactly does this reputation formula work?
Google provides some insights in a document called “Prevent mail to Gmail users from being blocked or sent to spam.”
Many of the recommendations are technical: Properly set up your infrastructure and authenticate your mail, for example. Additionally, the document provides insights into how engagement impacts your likelihood of landing in the spam folder.
Google’s advice includes tidbits like: “Only send email to people who want to get messages from you. They’re less likely to report messages from your domain as spam. If messages from your domain are often reported as spam, future messages are more likely to be marked as spam. Over time, many spam reports can lower your domain’s reputation.”
And:“Don’t send messages to people who didn’t sign up to get messages from you. These recipients might mark unwanted messages as spam. Future messages to these recipients will be marked as spam.“
Google claims that their goal with the pilot is to provide more transparency into email deliverability, while still allowing users to protect their inboxes by unsubscribing or marking mail as spam.
When an approved political sender sends mail as part of this pilot, they will bypass Gmail’s spam filtering rules. Their first email to each subscriber will include a prominent message asking if the subscriber wants to continue to receive mail from this sender, or if they would like to opt out.
Additionally, these political senders will receive data from Google about their inbox placement performance.
It’s likely that at the beginning of the pilot program, you’ll get mail from political senders that you are not used to seeing.
If you don’t want to see certain emails, you will be able to opt out of political mail from that sender.
If you are someone who likes to donate to political causes and wants to see these messages, you will likely see some messages that previously would have gone to spam. You can elect to continue to receive messages from that sender.
What if you use Gmail as an inbox provider, but another client, like Apple Mail, to read email? That has yet to be clarified.
Because we know that spam placement typically follows sending to those who manually mark email as “this is spam,” we can infer that, even under the pilot, political senders will continue to see substantial amounts of their subscriber lists opt out of their emails.
The data senders will receive on inbox placement and opt-outs will provide these senders some transparency and alleviate any feelings of bias by the reputation algorithm.
Gmail’s proposal stated, “…pilot participants will receive information about the rate at which their emails are delivered into Gmail users’ inboxes as opposed to spam folders.”
How impactful will this data be?
Gmail subscribers comprise a large volume of most email senders’ lists, and political senders are no different.
Having insights into how emails are performing under these unique conditions will be useful information to have for that segment, but unfortunately, because they are bypassing the spam filtering at Gmail, they cannot really infer that this reflects their performance with the rest of their audience.
This news is polarizing for both consumers and senders of email. Many find it difficult to understand why Google would consider doing this when, at a distance, the policy puts the burden on their users to opt out of mail they don’t want.
Some also find it difficult to understand why political senders would warrant unique changes in the spam filtering algorithm, when many senders work very hard to maintain a healthy reputation and don’t receive the same treatment.
In the short term, the inboxes you want to reach will be a little more crowded.
To secure your place in the inbox in light of these changes, it’s more important than ever to maintain a healthy sender reputation.
If you want to do so, the instructions haven’t changed.
Follow best practices for good senders and you’ll see improvement in your reputation and inbox placement.
For expert guidence to improve your sender reputation, check out our “All-in-One Sender Reputation Toolkit.”