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Google's War On Email

How a few tabs and buttons are changing a multibillion dollar industry.

Posted on February 27, 2014, at 1:07 p.m. ET

Late last summer I relinquished control over my inbox. Fed up with a feed that wouldn't quit, I decided to surrender my most sacred online space to Google. I wasn't alone either. Countless others also chose to cede control and let Gmail's tabbed inbox into their lives.

Tabbed inbox was Google's first attempt to take back the inbox — an effort that effectively consolidated the service, leaving third-party email clients permanently out of sync with Google's newly organized interface, and coaxing users back to the company's official sites and apps. The new interface was also a clear message to email marketers everywhere: Google will now determine the purpose of your email, where it should go and how it will processed and perceived by the user. The reimagined inbox sent powerful, respectable brands into panic mode and, in many cases, reduced them to begging for a coveted spot in your inbox's "Primary" tab.

Some six months later, Google appears to be continuing the offensive, this time by rolling out an "unsubscribe" action button on emails inside the "Promotions" inbox tab. In this update the button appears prominently next to the email's header, directly below the subject line and right next to the name of the sender. It's a bold placement choice by Google, one that's so immediately visible that it almost invites the user to unsubscribe from any email it's attached to. The feature is described by Google as a way to "empower users," and while that's true, it ignores the broader point: that Google is knowingly seizing control of and single-handedly reshaping a multibillion dollar industry.

For email marketers, the changes range anywhere from frustrating to a flagrant attack on the industry. "Google really should stop bullying the marketers who also buy advertising, thus, paying the bills," said one commenter on an email marketing blog. Yet as targeted and personal as Gmail's new features may feel to marketers, the changes serve a greater purpose: to push users toward Gmail's vision of the future of email. In this future, inboxes are cleaner and far more personal. There are multiple tabs that don't banish emails but instead, classify them. You visit all of them and click through most emails. It's a place where an unsolicited email is welcomed, but infrequent. It's a place that occupies a space somewhere between social networks and a homepage. It's a place you enjoy going and, most importantly, it's a place you can't really live without.

It's a future that, as of this writing, isn't fully realized. At the moment, Gmail's extra tabs feel more like renamed, narrowed-down spam folders than unique file folders. There's competition as well, with formidable opponents like Outlook offering equally appealing unsubscribe features and intelligent inboxes. Things are, however, moving in the right direction. For many users, tabbed inbox has successfully tamed the primary inbox, creating a meaningful feed of mostly actionable and relevant emails. This is Google's template.

Those familiar with the business of email believe that, as with tabbed inbox, the unsubscribe changes will benefit companies promoting quality newsletters and promotions. "Marketers freaked out when Google rolled out the tabs but engagement was up for those sending things people actually wanted to open and read, "Justine Jordan, the marketing director for the email marketing firm Litmus, told BuzzFeed. "And I think it was a positive thing for all parties since it gives the subscriber an easier way to say, 'I don't want to receive this.' Giving users a graceful way to say 'I'm done' is better than alternative of complaining on Twitter or reporting as spam."

Similarly, Jordan believes that an unsubscribe button will help eliminate uninterested subscribers and increase the reliability of email metrics, as well as the quality of mailing list members. "A marketer might argue it's bad for business, but the people that are going to unsubscribe usually aren't good for your business as a whole," she said.

Matthew Grove, an analyst at Mailchimp who has done extensive analysis of the effects of tabbed inbox on open rates, said he sees this as positive step for email as a whole. "There are two ways to get off an email campaign," he said. "The unhealthy way is to hit the spam button," which is usually reserved for emails you never signed up for. The healthy way is to unsubscribe, which used to be harder before this update. From a delivery perspective unsubscribes are way, way healthier and far more useful to marketers than abuse complaints."

There's also reason to believe that these changes, though subtle, will force the hands of brands and news organizations to raise the bar on promotional emails, which are so often maligned for being low quality and high volume. Relegating a post to a far-off inbox or constantly flaunting the option to unsubscribe is a ruthless, but effective tactic to increase quality and relevance. "The changes force them to look at their subscriber lists and are remind them that those lists are a little more precious than they thought," Grove said. It may also mean a transformation of sorts for email marketing, from its current form as a massive reincarnation of direct mail marketing into a smaller, more premium industry.

For anyone feeling the effects of email fatigue, the changes should feel like a small victory, but for Google and its war on email, its impact feels hard to overstate. By adding these features and coaxing users to clean up their inboxes Google makes the tabbed inbox not only more useful but more personal and, at it's very best, perhaps even enjoyable. That's a tall order, but the first and hardest step toward colonizing your inbox is already complete. We've already let Google back in and relinquished some control, but like any imperial war, change is sure to be gradual and probably a little bloody.