Getting useless emails might be close to the top of everyone’s list of most hated things on the internet (tied with Facebook game requests, probably). No one likes getting spammed and there are tons of tiny little creatures known as spambots that live to do exactly that. To avoid unwanted messages, lots of people use various email obfuscators with varying levels of success. But does this approach actually work?
What is the email obfuscation about?
The idea behind email obfuscation is simple. You want to make it as hard as possible for website crawlers to capture your email address and use it later on.
If you don’t, your inbox is likely to get flooded with ever-so-interesting offers of sophisticated therapies and messages from the long-forgotten uncle that left you a small fortune. Obfuscated contacts should be hard to traverse for bots but easy to utilize for real users.
There’s also the concept of email masking – altering an email address to protect our privacy online but also to secure the data of users or create data samples for software testing. We cover all these topics in our article on email masking.
Obfuscating Public Emails to Prevent Spam
Now, let’s explore the most common way of obfuscating your emails.
Changing email format
By far, the easiest way to hide your email address from crawlers is by removing or replacing some characters. The most common method is to replace ‘@’ character with [at]. It’s fairly obvious to just about anyone what the correct address is and bots looking strictly for email addresses will get confused. It also can be implemented within seconds, without any code.
Many variations of this approach can be seen around the web. The next step would be to add our address as “support at mailtrap dot io”. Sounds clear? Yes. Will it mislead some bots? Likely. But it’s already forcing users to make some extra effort to contact you.
The same goes for all the “contact me at steve and the rest is my domain address” contact details. They’re very clear but will likely lower conversion.
Another approach that can sometimes be seen on rather simple pages is hiding contact details on an image. So, instead of a footer of your page with the details in it, the webmaster uploads a picture of a footer with an email address.
It’s almost impossible for spam bots to penetrate but it’s also quite a hassle for users, especially those with visual impairment. So please don’t take this approach.
Using contact forms
Another common way of hiding emails is by… removing them from a site. Such emails are replaced by contact forms of various shapes and sizes. Forms don’t expose an email address to bots, they also allow you to gather additional data in an easy to absorb form (as in the example below).
Are they perfect? No. Many users prefer sending emails over filling forms, especially if they want to email several companies at once (for example, to compare the offers). Businesses tend to add multiple fields to a form, often with good intentions (e.g. when troubleshooting). But the more required fields, the harder it is to fill the form and fewer people will contact you.
What’s even worse, while bots can’t harvest an email from such sites, they can easily complete a form and submit it within milliseconds. To prevent that, many forms come with verification solutions that check if users are legit before a message is sent.
Using Google reCaptcha
A great approach to validating senders is with Google reCaptcha. It went a long way from forcing users to decipher sometimes ridiculously twisted characters to a really user-friendly tool these days. What’s the most important, reCaptcha really works and with very high accuracy is able to distinguish bots from humans.
You sure have seen reCaptcha v2 a number of times. It’s this bar that pops up usually under the ‘submit’ button and asks you to check a box if you’re not a bot. A quick load and a message is sent.
Later iterations also added the so-called Invisible reCaptcha – a bar stating that a form is “protected by ReCaptcha”. When submitting a form, a user doesn’t need to perform any action as the check happens automatically within milliseconds. Only those with low reCaptcha score (so likely the bots) will be subject to additional verification before they can proceed.
With the latest iteration, ReCaptcha v3, the entire process happens in the background. Users don’t even know that any check is performed and yet, nearly all spambots are easily discarded.
V3 also comes with other features that enable you to hide or fake contact details if a low score is recorded. Among other features, displaying only partial contact details and forcing users to click (and get verified) to get more might be also worth your attention.
We can safely recommend reCaptcha as a great way to secure contact forms.
- Users can still click/tap on your email and be redirected directly to their inbox -> increased conversion
- It’s neat, almost doesn’t take up any space and doesn’t slow down your pages, like contact forms or images of contact details
- Bots go crazy and look for a better target elsewhere
<a href="mailto:email@example.com">Your Name</a>
Of course, ‘name’ and ‘domain’ are to be replaced with the components of your email address. In the case of our address (firstname.lastname@example.org), ‘support’ would be ‘name’ while ‘mailtrap.io’ is a ‘domain’.
Bots are getting smarter and smarter and some can already decipher even such code. That’s why developers try to find new and new ways to encode such addresses, without affecting the user experience. Below you can see our email address encoded with one of the approaches:
<a href="mailto:email@example.com">Mailtrap Support</a>
There are also various plugins that can automate the process in respective frameworks so that you don’t have to obfuscate each link manually. Here are some examples:
- actionview-encoded_mail_to can be used to obfuscate emails in Ruby on Rails applications
- react-obfuscate obfuscates not only emails but also phone numbers or Facetime links when developing with ReactJS
Does email obfuscation work in general?
It kind of does. If you did a simple test on two similar websites and put a plain email address on one and JS-obfuscated address on another, you would likely see the latter one perform better.
Likely it wouldn’t be 100% accurate though. As we mentioned earlier, crawlers are getting better and better as they need to find ways to harvest as many addresses as their computing power allows. Many are already coded in such a way that they can decipher all those [at] addresses without any hassle (see how easy it is to decode them here).
You might spend days testing different solutions, coding them and analyzing results. And then, it could take a single person to find your email in some long-forgotten spreadsheet and sell it to a harvester to make all your efforts futile.
The crawlers are improving but so are spam filters. Gmail or Thunderbird spam filters these days are able to stop almost every useless message sent your way. In 2015 Google claimed that they’re able to stop 99,9% of spam messages and mistakenly classify as spam only 0,05% of incoming mail. And it was four years ago!
One would argue that looking into a reliable filter might be a better investment of your time than trying to outsmart the bots.