Google owns email, just like search

Google owns email, just like search

Running a fast growing newsletter for the last 6 months has revealed that Googlebot is not just about the web.

Remember how Instagram grew through the Twitter social graph? Then Twitter blocked them from their API.

Remember how Zynga used Facebook's platform to build a huge gaming business and even accounted for 12% of Facebook's revenue when they went public? Then Facebook changed its algorithm faster than Zynga could build an independent platform which resulted in Zynga losing nearly half its users.

Remember how reliant Mahalo was on SEO? Then Google changed its rules and Mahalo had to lay off staff and try to pivot to be less reliant on Google traffic. It later shut down.

The lesson is that reliance on a single source for all your users, traffic, and/or revenue is a huge risk. Using an existing social network makes it easy to bootstrap an audience, but there is a risk the platform will shut you down or change the rules.

Although you might be able to diversify your use multiple social networks, the unfortunate reality for the web is that most search traffic still comes from Google. DuckDuckGo is doing well, and I'm a recent convert to Brave Search, but Google still has almost 90% search market share.

This is why we started Console as a weekly email newsletter. The theory is that this is a one-time conversion - once subscribed, we would be able to go direct to each person whenever we wanted, on our own terms.

By building our own email subscribers, we own the audience. So long as we maintain a good quality newsletter that people want to read, this is much more valuable than having to compete for every search query.

Worldwide desktop market share of leading search engines from January 2010 to June 2021 (source).

Getting into the inbox

Whilst it might seem that once you have a subscriber email you have a direct route to reach them, there are two steps to getting there:

  1. Is the email successfully delivered into the system? Incorrect addresses, accounts over quota or deleted accounts usually get reported as a bounce. Some emails detected as spam get blocked and bounced here too. Mailchimp handles those for us, cleaning emails that hard bounce (e.g. incorrect address) or retrying soft bounces (e.g. account over quota) for a time period before they also get cleaned.
  2. Does the email reach the (priority) inbox? Once it enters the email system, there is no visibility as to whether it has passed the spam filters and shown up in the inbox, in one of GMail's tabs, or perhaps in another view like Hey's Feed.

Even if emails fail the first step with a useful bounce message, engaging with the email provider is almost impossible. We've seen emails blocked by overly-aggressive filters that match on simplistic terms or links. For example, a recent email was bounced because it supposedly contained a virus. Reporting this to the email provider was less than helpful:

There is an issue with the email contents whether it be a link in the signature, attachment, etc that is getting picked up as a virus in our anti-virus scanner. You would have to modify the contents so that is removed and try sending the email again. Unfortunately we are unable to determine what was picked up in our anti-virus scanner. If there is anything further I can assist with please let me know.

Needless to say there were no viruses in the email we sent. Blind reliance on all-knowing email filters is not a good sign as more decisions are made using algorithms and opaque "machine learning" models, especially if there is no route to appeal.

Google also owns email

We are building out our website, but we think of this as another channel and almost like a separate business. It is designed to support the email list, and our subscribers use the website to sign up, but if Google suddenly changes how it ranks sites and our web traffic falls we would still have the ability to reach our audience.

What we didn't consider was how much Google is also involved with email - GMail itself makes up 26% of email clients, but this is probably higher because many of the others connect to GMail as the backing service.

The top 10 email clients worldwide based on the share of email opens in March 2019 (source).

Our subscriber domain breakdown is:

  • 55% @gmail.com
  • 39% custom domains (no doubt many of these using GMail)
  • 2% @hotmail.com
  • 2% @outlook.com
  • 1% @icloud.com
  • 1% @hey.com

For web search, Google's Search Console provides detailed statistics about where you rank, how keywords are performing, and sends alerts when it detects quality problems with your site.

For email, Google's Postmaster Tools gives very limited data about how many spam reports you get and whether your domains/IP addresses have a good reputation. There is no reporting on how emails are sorted.

As a small business, the way we mitigate this risk is to work with a major email provider (Mailchimp) to deal with delivery issues. We rely on Mailchimp's scale, and their relationships with the big email vendors, so that we can focus on creating interesting emails. We pay Mailchimp so we don't have to think much about it.

Even so, we still track soft bounces and raise issues with email providers directly to try and resolve block messages proactively. As we grow, I expect this will become something we have to deal with more and more. I expect understanding email deliverability will be a required skill in the same way that website design and optimization is today. We design for humans first, but also consider how Googlebot analyzes our site.

Running a fast growing newsletter for the last 6 months has revealed that Googlebot is not just about the web. Email has been around for decades, but there is still limited understanding about how the delivery internals of the big providers work.

I'm not sure that is going to improve any time soon because the incentives are misaligned - nobody wants to get more email - but maybe the regulatory action against Big Tech will mean Google Search gets split from Google Mail? It's surely not a good thing to have a single company controlling such critical parts of the internet.

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