Just days after I discussed my move from Gmail to Hotmail for all of my personal email, Microsoft revealed yet another improvement to its web-based email service. To be clear, Hotmail has been on a rapid update cycle of late, and if you are using this service, I suspect you've noticed the improvements over the past year especially.
This week's update concerns an improvement to Hotmail's SmartScreen
feature, which is used to identify and separate junk email from legitimate email. But with this update, SmartScreen does even more: Now it also separates email newsletters from other email.
"The latest release of Hotmail uses SmartScreen to automatically identify more than a billion newsletters every day," Microsoft's Dick Craddock wrote in a blog post explaining the update. "Since newsletters account for more than a quarter of all the mail in a typical inbox, having them automatically categorized is a big time-saver."
The evolution of Hotmail generally and SmartScreen specifically has followed a similar evolution in the makeup of the email that goes through the system each day. As the post explains, in 2006, email could simply be broken down into two groups, spam and everything else. But email has evolved, and today Hotmail must contend with graymail--email that you may or may not want--as well as legitimate email, true spam, and more.
Graymail is obviously tricky because it's a mix of wanted and unwanted email. Microsoft categorizes graymail into categories like newsletters and deals, social updates, person to person, groups and notifications, shopping, and the like. And the company previously added features to Hotmail specifically to help users manage graymail, such as Sweep, Scheduled Cleanup, special inbox views of the inbox, and so on.
With this update, however, Microsoft is addressing the biggest component of graymail: The company says that fully 50 percent of graymail comes in the form of email newsletters. (And graymail itself is 82 percent of all mail that comes in to Hotmail, which explains recent efforts in this area.)
"Every day the average person’s inbox is flooded with messages from thousands of different retailers, clubs, societies, and schools, or with coupons, deals, and notifications from deal aggregators talking about all the exciting things that people need to be buying, doing, or seeing," Craddock writes. "Newsletters can be extremely diverse. Anyone can send newsletters, and newsletters can include any format or content they like. Dealing with that diversity meant we needed to take a different approach."
That approach is a filter that uses machine learning to understand what is and is not a newsletter. It's been tested against a random sample of emails internally at Microsoft since September and given its 97 percent success rate is now ready for the public. You can also improve your own results by using Hotmail's categorization tool to mark email as a newsletter (or not), and since SmartScreen learns from users' habits, it will only get better over time.
I noticed today, for example, that my own WinInfo Daily News newsletter was correctly categorized as a newsletter by Hotmail:
"With the newsletter filter now in the hands of all our customers, we will continue adding new categories and features that enable you to get the most out of them," Craddock concludes. "We're investigating ways to more effectively present and manage email-based receipts, bank statements, and more. We hope the newsletter filter can be a helpful tool in your own war on graymail. We love getting your feedback, so let us know how it’s working for you, and, as always, Thanks for using Hotmail."