As we start the New Year, there has been a flurry of announcements around the volume of spam. Is it getting better? Is it getting worse?
It has been pointed out many times that nearly all the statistics on spam volumes comes from companies that make spam filtering software. Therefore, it is significant that Brightmail (purchased by Symantec last year), arguably the most pervasive filter technology company, announced last week that they have seen spam growth finally level out. And even though they decided not to make a major announcement, MessageLabs, also saw spam drop from a reported 94.5% of all email in July 2004 down to 73% in November 2004.
This, on top of AOL's announcement Dec 27 (see my blog on this) saying they'd seen a big drop in both inbound spam volumes and spam complaints in their customers' inboxes, suggests that the war on spam may finally be turning.
Just to be clear, there really are two questions here, not one: First, is the volume of spam being sent going up or down? And, second, is the volume of spam received into users' inboxes going up or down?
Presumably, a stream of constant upgrades and improvements in filtering technology can only improve the inbox spam problem. As the overall spam numbers level out, the level of spam into inboxes should go down with every upgrade.
These early indicators are a positive sign that spam may be less of a problem in 2006 than it was in 2004 - 2005 will be probably be seen as the year that the war on spam took a turn for the better. As technology and legislation (more on legislation later) continue to target illegitimate email, it will start to chase away 'part time' spammers. They will be left with three choices: get out of the business, go legitimate (I think most lack the skills) or push beyond the gray areas into being clearly illegal. Given that the overall spam volumes are leveling out, I think some spammers are in the process of exiting the business. Unfortunately, a few of the more nefarious ones are switching from Viagra ads to trying to steal your credit card info by posing as eBay (phishing attacks are skyrocketing). 2005 will also be the year that phishing took on a whole new level of prominence.
However, even with an increase in phishing attacks, any reduction or slow down in traditional spam is good news for email marketers. As the percentage of promotions in an inbox shifts back towards legitimate, permission-based messages, email users will regain the control they feel they've lost. They will once again be more willing to opt-out rather than delete; they will have a bit more time to read what they do get; and they will have to sift through fewer questionable promotions and therefore have more confidence with the legitimate promotions they continue to receive.
As I've said many times, spam will never go away. However, email marketing continues to thrive in a world of spam - I think it can only get better as the battle lines start to shift in favor of the good guys.