Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) America Online gave Internet users and its own customers alike something to cheer about yesterday. It reported a 75% reduction in the amount of spam reports from users, implying that less spam has junked up its users' mailboxes over the course of the past year.
AOL's internal data makes for fabulous PR, of course, although it's likely pretty easy to poke a few holes in that statistic. What may be more telling is that AOL says that the daily number of spam emails that its filters deflect is 50% lower than it was this time last year, and there are less attempted spam emails from the Internet, suggesting spammers are "throwing in the towel" in trying to get past its defenses.
Even the most tolerant and placid among us can probably wield as strong a word as "hate" when describing unsolicited email spam. Beyond being a nuisance, spam has proven itself to sap trust out of Internet users, which organizations like Pew Internet & American Life have unearthed in research. Given the fact that email is such a popular Internet-based activity, this is an issue that all of the heavyweight email providers, from Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) to Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) to Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , have to contend with.
The dangers of spam -- and its negative effects on AOL users' perceptions of its service -- have obviously not been lost on AOL. It has recently put money behind initiatives to make its users' inboxes safer places, such as a new, free antivirus package as well as its recent acquisition of anti-spam specialist Mailblocks.
However, there are definitely other factors at work: Some are directly related to AOL and others aren't. For example, there has been increased law enforcement directed at spammers, like this recent arrest that sounds like a small coup when it comes to nailing virtual villains. There's the CAN-SPAM Act. There's even history of rivals getting together to fight the menace.
Of course, with any luck at all, there's also the glimmer of hope that Internet users will stop responding to spam altogether (unless they're messing with spammers' heads, like this enterprising gentleman, though the practice of baiting spammers certainly can't be recommended).
To be able to claim a victory in this regard is indeed a ray of sunlight for AOL. However, the company still faces an array of competitive threats, not least of which is inevitable broadband conversion. Even with a "less spam" marketing line, chugging along on dial-up is hardly an adequate trade-off for Internet users who wish to use the medium to its full capacity.
I've said in the past that AOL needs to find a better, more defensible niche, one that truly differentiates itself from rivals. Although being able to claim this victory is a great piece of PR, spam -- or the lack thereof -- is not the whole recipe for AOL's future success, though it certainly does help.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.