One entrepreneurial Web site operator thinks he's come up with an inventive solution for e-tailers who want a "click here to e-mail us" link on their home pages. It's called Dodgemail. The system makes up a different e-mail address for every site visitor -- an address that's good for only 24 hours.
That's long enough for a potential customer to ask a question of the e-commerce site, and the company to send back a reply containing a permanent e-mail address. But it's not long enough for the temporary address to be exploited by spammers who use "harvester" software. Such software is programmed to grab data from any site foolish enough to post an e-mail address as plain text.
Hiding Your Addresses from Harvesters
If your Web site needs to provide a way for visitors to communicate with you, my preferred approach to keeping your e-mail addresses out of the hands of spammers is threefold:
Forms. Use a Web form that allows a visitor to type in his or her e-mail address, followed by the text to send.
Images. Display your company's e-mail address as an image. Harvesters are only profitable if they scan millions of pages as quickly as possible. They aren't programmed, therefore, to stop and perform optical character recognition on every image on the Web on the off-chance that an e-mail address might be found.
These tricks work well enough that I've written a short e-book about "spam-proofing" the e-mail addresses on your Web site, using the techniques shown above and others.
The 24-Hour Solution
But something about Dodgemail strikes me as the grain of an idea. I called its inventor, Ian Maddox, and inquired about the system's internal workings. (Disclosure: Maddox was employed by me briefly in 2005.)
As Maddox explains it, the steps to create an e-mail address that only works for 24 hours are as follows:
Sign up. You enter your e-mail address -- both the part before the @ sign and the part after -- into the home page of Dodgemail. (At this early stage of development, the site is pure minimalism and offers no documentation or help of any kind.)
Self-destructing addresses. Every time someone clicks your "E-mail me" link, a different e-mail address is generated. These addresses begin with a long, case-sensitive string, such as:
4WxzvZvVivOY07c7g7Dodgemail9XK3c0D2XK @ dodgemail.com
Forwarding. Messages your visitors send are received by the Dodgemail server and forwarded to your real address. After 24 hours, messages sent to self-destructing addresses are simply deleted. Before then, you've presumably sent a response to your interested customer explaining your real address.
In the future, Maddox says, users will be able to specify a lifetime of X messages or Y hours, rather than defining the lifetime of all addresses as 24 hours.
Dodgemail is so new that it's hard to find any sites that are using this approach. I did find a few participating blogs, such as ponyloaf.com/jake. When you click this site's "Mail" link, a new mail message opens with a Dodgemail address in the "To" line.
More Fun with PHP
Most companies that are larger than a single blog page will understandably be reluctant to route their incoming e-mail through a little-known Web service. I'm describing Dodgemail in this column because it's an intriguing kludge that businesses may be able to adapt to their own situations.
Maddox says, "I've thought about having the person who owns a domain set up a subdomain of their own and configure their MX record to let Dodgemail handle the mail." This would allow the e-mail addresses to bear the company's own domain name in the addresses instead of Dodgemail.com.
The business model for Dodgemail won't involve placing ads, Maddox says. "They bring in only pennies." Instead, he believes offering premium services, where users pay a periodic fee, is a more promising source of revenue.
In the meantime, he isn't putting all of his eggs in the Dodgemail basket. He offers several fascinating online services at his personal Web site, iSnoop.net. (The name is a derivative of Snoopy, the dog in Peanuts, and is an old school nickname.) All the services are free:
Package-tracking mashup. You can enter any UPS, FedEx, USPS, or DHL/AirBorne tracking number and not only get an RSS feed to follow your parcel's progress, but also a Google map showing the route it's taking.
Convention-travel estimator. For an upcoming conference, Maddox programmed a routine to find the cheapest city for several people to fly to, using current airline prices. It's general enough that anyone can use it. The service is so new that it isn't even linked to from iSnoop's home page, so here's the URL: Costimator.
Coming to a theatre near you. You enter your city name or ZIP code and receive a list of RSS feeds that provide show times for movies in theatres near you. The raw data is provided by Google.
Maddox was briefly known for his late, great Gmail Invite Spooler. This free service opened in mid-2004, when people who wanted a Gmail account had to be invited by someone who already had one. Maddox's spooler allowed people with Gmail accounts to contribute their unused invitations into a pool for others who wanted to sign up.
At one point, the spooler was receiving 100,000 visitors a day. But, after almost a year of operation, Maddox shut down the service after Google blocked it in June 2005, as he explains in a blog entry.
Today, of course, Gmail accounts can be obtained by anyone. But the now-disabled spooler page is still the most-visited part of the iSnoop site. 87 percent of the page's visitors are Web surfers from outside the U.S. who are apparently just now hearing about the spooler via word of mouse. So Maddox added a 31-line machine-translation script (surprise, based on Google Translate) so non-English-speaking visitors can better understand why the service ended.
None of these applets may ever make Maddox any real money. But it's encouraging to see that inventiveness is still alive and kicking on the Internet.