Are free email services worth it?

This article was originally written in November of 2004 and revised in June of 2010. In the intervening years one would hope that things would have gotten substantially better, but sadly I have to report that this is not the case. Not even close.

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear of problems with one of the major free email providers. In fact, I can fairly safely say that not a day has gone by in over 5 years.

It really begs the question — are free email services like Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Google Mail and others worth the cost?

My position: Yes.

And: Absolutely not.

As always, it depends on your needs and your expectations. Unfortunately, many people’s expectations are very, very wrong.

The Cost of Free Email

You may be asking yourself, “What cost? Free email services are free, aren’t they?”

By now you should know there’s no such thing as “free” — everything has a cost.

It may not come out of your wallet each month, but there’s definitely a cost.

Here are some of the costs that I associate with free email services:

  • Spam — Free email services seem to receive a disproportionate amount of spam. There are various theories about why, but the fact is that you’ll get more spam with a free mail service than with a regular ISP. Some are better at filtering it than others, but the amount of spam that each service deals with is enormous — and often legitimate email is a casualty of the battle.
  • Deliverability — A disproportionate amount of SPAM at least appears to come from free email addresses. With “From: spoofing” it’s debatable how much actually does, but the fact is spammers regularly sign up for and abuse free email accounts, or work to make it look like their spam is coming from free email accounts. The result is that free email services come with a built-in penalty — email from a free email service is slightly more likely to be evaluated as and filtered as SPAM.
  • Customer Service — For all intents and purposes, there is no customer service for free email accounts. This is truly a case of “you get what you pay for”. While there might be web forms and email address that will accept your question, your chances of getting a response are often proportional to what you paid — zero.
  • Limits and Restrictions — Most free services have limits of how much email you can send in any given time period. Often there are other limits placed on functionality should you choose to use, or are restricted to using the service’s web-based interface.

In my opinion, based on the questions that I receive and the problems that I see every day, the lack of responsive customer service, as well as the sometimes serious deliverability issues are by far the biggest reasons to be very cautious when considering a free email account.

(If you’re using a free email account for your business, I’m explicitly side-stepping in this article the often substantial negative image that using a free email account carries with it. Read Why is using Hotmail for my business such a bad idea? for more details — make sure to browse the comments as well.)

Issues and Alternatives You Must Consider

At a minimum, you should never use a free email service to keep the only copy of anything that you consider important. You run a serious risk of losing it — without warning and without recourse. I see it every day: documents, term papers and dissertations lost, job offers and opportunities vanished, valuable contact information gone forever.

Here’s how to judge: if the email account went away completely tomorrow, along with all of the mail and contact information that it contains, would it be an inconvenience or a catastrophe? If the latter, then you need to reconsider your use of your free account. Now.

If your email is actually important to you, particularly if your email address is something important to you, then spend a little and get a “real” email account, ideally by purchasing your own domain. (Once you own your own domain you never need change your email address again, and can still use a plethora of email services — including free — to manage your email.) A great rule of thumb is that any email account that has real customer support — a telephone number and a real person answering it — is an immediate step up from most free email services. This could include your ISP’s email services, a for-pay mail service or any of a number of other alternatives. Depending on the provider, each one of the ‘costs’ that I listed above will at least be diminished, if not eliminated.

If you must continue to use a free email provider, regularly backup your email and contacts. Many people are surprised that often even after recovering a hacked or otherwise compromised account all of their email and contact information that had been stored with the account is still irretrievably gone, without hope of recovery. Even if you’re not using a free account backing up important information is key. The rule of thumb: if it’s only in one place, then it’s not backed up.

Free Email is Good for Some Things

But I did say that free email services were also worth it, didn’t I? In fact, I have a Hotmail account, a Yahoo account, and a Gmail account.

Why?

Throw-away Accounts: Free accounts are perfect when you don’t really care what happens to them. They’re great when you need to supply an email address to a company that you think may spam you later. Or if you need or want to remain anonymous or otherwise separate that email from your important stuff. Or for leaving as a contact address on a website that will probably get harvested for spam someday.

SPAM filters: In an ironic twist, Google Mail turns out to have a very robust SPAM filter. Yes, your Gmail account will get tons of SPAM as all the free services would, but Google’s SPAM filters are (as I write this) the best that I’ve seen at correctly filtering out spam. So much so that I actually route all of my email through a Google account specifically for this purpose. (Before you cry foul, realize that I’m not relying on Gmail — I’m using my own email addresses on my own domain. Should anything ever happen to my Gmail account, I will not lose any email, and my email addresses will all remain valid and in my control.)

Service Access: Sometimes you simply have to have one to access certain services. My Windows Live Hotmail account is my account for all Windows Live services, my Yahoo account for all Yahoo related services, and my Gmail account for all my Google related services.

Can You Use Free Email “For Real”?

Remember that if you lose your free email account, due to hackers or some other misfortune, it is likely that you will not get it back. It’s possible, but in my experience and with what I see, I believe it is incredibly unlikely. When that happens you lose your email address — permanently. People who send email to that address will not be reaching you and may in fact be emailing the hacker that stole your account.

I know of no way around this. It’s a fundamental risk of a system that has little or no customer service because it’s free.

That being said, you can minimize your exposure to problems using a free email account if you:

  • Take every precaution to keep your password and account information safe. That includes choosing good passwords, never sharing them with anyone, keeping your machine free of malware, avoiding using your account on public or shared computers and knowing how to keep yourself safe at open WiFi hotspots.
  • Backup your email and your contacts. I don’t care how. Set up an auto forward rule to another account, periodically export and download your contacts, don’t use the web interfaces but rather use a POP3/SMTP desktop email program keeping all of the data on your PC where you regularly backup. Essentially do something — anything — that makes copies of all your data — contacts and email — in more than once place.
  • Use Gmail as your free email account if you have the opportunity. As I write this, again based on the questions and problems that I hear about, Google’s Gmail is the current leader among free email services in terms of stability, spam filtering, delivery, and accessibility. It’s still a free account, so don’t expect premium service (or in particular, premium customer service — there’s still no phone support), but as it stands, Gmail is “best of breed” in the free email arena.

By far the most important thing that you can do is to simply assume that your free email account may not be there tomorrow, and take the steps to prepare now for that to be as minimal of an impact on you and your operations as possible.

Years of reader questions and reported problems only continue to strengthen my position.

This is an update to an article originally posted : November 8, 2004.

Originally published at askleo.com on March 16, 2013.

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