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March 29, 2008

Keeping the good stuff out at Yahoo! Answers

This is, I think, an amusing and instructive tale. I'm a bit sorry to be telling it, because I have a lot of friends at Yahoo! (especially in the Research division), and I respect the organization. The point is not to criticize Yahoo! Answers, however: keeping pollution out is a hard problem for user-contributed content information services, and that their system is imperfect is a matter for sympathy, not scorn.

While preparing for my recent presentation at Yahoo! Research, I wondered whether Yahoo! Mail was still using the the Goodmail spam-reduction system (which is based on monetary incentives). I couldn't find the answer with a quick Google search, nor by searching the Goodmail and Yahoo! corporate web sites (Goodmail claims that Yahoo! is a current client, but there was no information about whether Yahoo! is actually using the service, or what impact it is having).

So, I thought, this is a great chance to give Yahoo! Answers a try. I realize the question answerers are not generally Yahoo! employees, but I figured some knowledgeable people might notice the question. Here is my question, in full:

Is Yahoo! Mail actually using Goodmail's Certified Email? In 2005 Yahoo!, AOL and Goodmail announced that the former 2 had adopted Goodmail's "Certified Email" system to allow large senders to buy "stamps" to certify their mail (see e.g., http://tinyurl.com/2atncr). The Goodmail home page currently states that this system is available at Yahoo!. Yet I can find nothing about it searching Yahoo!Mail Help, etc. My question: I the system actually being used at Yahoo!Mail? Bonus: Any articles, reports, etc. about its success or impacts on user email experience?

A day later I received the following "Violation Notice" from Yahoo! Answers:

You have posted content to Yahoo! Answers in violation of our Community Guidelines or Terms of Service. As a result, your content has been deleted. Community Guidelines help to keep Yahoo! Answers a safe and useful community, so we appreciate your consideration of its rules.

So, what is objectionable about my question? It is not profane or a rant. It is precisely stated (though compound), and I provided background context to aid answerers (and so they knew what I already knew).

I dutifully went and read the Community Guidelines (CG) and the Terms of Service (TOS), and I could not figure out what I had violated. I had heard elsewhere that some people did not like TinyURLs because it it not clear where you are being redirected, and thus it might be used to maliciously direct traffic. But I saw nothing in the CG or TOS that prohibited URLs in general, or TinyURLs specifically.

So I contacted the link they provided to appeal the deletion. A few days later I received a reply that cut-and-pasted the information from the Yahoo! Answers help page explaining why content is deleted. This merely repeated what I had been told in the first message (since none of the other categories applied): my content was in violation of the CG or TOS. But no information was provided (second time) on how the content violated these rules.

Another address was provided to appeal the decision, so I wrote a detailed message to that address, explaining my question, and my efforts to figure out what I was violating. A few days later, I got my third email from Yahoo! Answers:

We have reviewed your appeal request. Upon review we found that your content was indeed in violation of the Yahoo! Answers Community Guidelines, Yahoo! Community Guidelines or the Yahoo! Terms of Service. As a result, your content will remain removed from Yahoo! Answers.

Well... Apparently it's clear to others that my message violates the CG or the TOS, but no one wants to tell me what the violation actually is. Three answers, all three with no specific explanation. Starting to feel like I'm a character in a Kafka novel.

At this point, I laughed and gave up (it was time for me to travel to Yahoo! to give my -- apparently dangerous and community-guideline-violating -- presentation anyway).

I have to believe that there is something about the use of a URL, a TinyURL, or the content to which I pointed that is a violation. I've looked, and found many answers that post URLs (not surprisingly) to provide people with further information. Perhaps the problem is that I was linking to a Goodmail press release on their web site, and they have a copyright notice on that page? But does Yahoo! really think providing a URL is "otherwise make available any Content that infringes any patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright" (from the TOS)? Isn't that what Yahoo's search engine does all the time?

End of story.

Moral? Yahoo! Answers is a user-contributed content platform. Like most, that means it is fundamentally an open-access publishing platform. There will be people who want to publish content that is outside the host's desired content scope. How to keep out the pollution? Yahoo! uses a well-understood, expensive method to screen: labor. People read the posted questions and make determinations about acceptability. But, as with any screen, there are Type I (false negative) and Type II (false positive) errors. Screening polluting content is hard.

(My question probably does violate something, but surely the spirit of my question does not. I had a standard, factual, reference question, ironically, to learn a fact that I wanted to use in a presentation to Yahoo! Research. A bit more clarity about what I was violating and I would have contributed desirable content to Yahoo! Answers. Instead, a "good" contributor was kept out.)

Posted by jmm at March 29, 2008 10:19 AM

Comments

A possibility that comes to mind: you were (not coincidentally) asking a question of much interest to spammers. I imagine it's similarly hard to ask legitimate questions about Via--- (er, I probably shouldn't type that word if I want this comment to make it through!).

Posted by: dreeves at March 29, 2008 01:33 PM

Hi Dan! Well, that's an interesting thought, and one that didn't cross my mind! Less benign than my hypotheses, in a way: it never occurred to me that someone at Yahoo! found the substance of the question objectionable.

And I don't think "information that is of interest to spammers" is in violation of the CG or TOS, either, in any case. Indeed, I don't think there's about the fact of whether Goodmail is in use or not that helps spammers get around it. It's a "stamp" system: if you pay for a Goodmail stamp, your mail is supposed to be guaranteed (by Yahoo!) to get past the Yahoo! filters. (It is supposed to reduce spam because the filters get tighter on un-stamped mail.) So saying "we use Goodmail" I don't think communicates more than "our filters are tight".


Posted by: jmm at March 29, 2008 02:57 PM

If you want to court trouble, ask Yahoo! Answers why your previous content was deleted from Yahoo! Answers. If you get really lucky, they might delete you for being such a cad, which would make the story even better.

Posted by: putnamm at April 8, 2008 02:42 PM

Very interesting post you have. I'm guessing that the reason it "violates" Yahoo's TOS is because they see it as a potential threat for spammers to somehow get a peek into how the email filters work at Yahoo (though I'm sure spammers have multiple tools and ways to get their spam through).
This just goes to show how conservative yahoo is in terms of sharing information about their technical infrastructure.
Good post. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: eqqy@live.com at May 13, 2008 03:29 PM

I've heard this conjecture from others too; if it is the reason, I think it doesn't make sense (which doesn't mean it isn't the reason!). The Goodmail system is not a software filter you can program around: it is a paid certification. If you pay the fee, you can get a "Goodmail stamp of approval" (cryptographically secure) added to your bulk mail sent to Yahoo! Mail customers. But for that to work, you need to let bulk mailers know about the system, so they know they can go to Goodmail. If you hide the system, and refuse to answer whether it exists, then "good" mailers (really, willing-to-pay mailers) can't use the system, and it doesn't accomplish anything!

Posted by: jmm at May 13, 2008 10:14 PM

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