Google is back in the news - and once again, it’s not for anything good. They added a Promotions folder to Gmail some time ago, and the pitch was that all the emails from brands that wanted to engage with you would automagically end up in there.
The problem is that this mechanism works a little too well, as Seth Godin describes:
You take the posts from this blog and dump them into my promo folder--and the promo folder of more than a hundred thousand people who never asked you to hide it.
Emails from my favorite charities end up in my promo folder. The Domino Project blog goes there as well. Emails from Medium, from courses I've signed up for, from services I confirmed just a day earlier. Items sent with full permission, emails that by most definitions aren't "promotions."
Here's a simple way to visualize it: Imagine that your mailman takes all the magazines you subscribe to, mixes them in with the junk mail you never asked for, and dumps all of it in a second mailbox, one that you don't see on your way into the house every day. And when you subscribe to new magazines, they instantly get mixed in as well.
It may be that this mechanism has recently received a revamp, as others are reporting sudden impacts on their newsletters:
What happens when gmail puts you in spam 🤷🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/JTNbUxTUH6— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) January 19, 2018
The charitable explanation would be that Google’s system may be extrapolating from a few people who hit “report as spam" instead of “unsubscribe". However, there is an inherent conflict of interest when an advertising-funded company offers to rid us of unwanted advertising in the one channel in which it does not itself sell advertising.
I wrote about this issue the last time this functionality was showing up in breathless headlines about how "Google kills email spam!!!1!":
the actual reason Google is doing this is to reduce or even eliminate a channel marketers can use to connect with consumers without going through Google. Subscribing to e-mail updates is a direct connection between consumers and brands. Google would rather be the middleman in that transaction, selling AdWords to brands and collecting a toll on all the traffic.
Much like Facebook choking off unpaid organic reach in favour of forcing operators of pages (including free community pages!) to pay to promote their content, Google is choking off what had been a communications channel that it did not gather a tax on. Facebook was able to do what they did because they own their own platform and can make their own rules. Google might be able to get away with their own cash grab because of the dominance of Gmail in the email world – but email is not just Google.
As convenient as Gmail is, a single middleman becoming this important is very dangerous for email. In the same way, as good as Google Reader was, it became so central to website subscriptions that nearly everything ended up funnelling through there. When Google killed Reader, it was an event of apocalyptic proportions. Fortunately, Google had only killed one RSS platform, and others were able to release their own in short order.
Will Gmail end up like Facebook – or like Reader?