How Google easily stole a competitor's perfectly happy customer.
I’m used to Google being a monopoly in search and display advertising. Having run raptorsrepublic.com for over 14 years, I’ve experienced the business impact when you’re not in Google’s good graces. Losing major ad revenue streams and getting your domain blacklisted because of false positives can shatter revenue streams. These non-issues take time to resolve because talking to a human about the matter is impossible. Your business is essentially taken hostage and there’s little you can do.
On a personal note, I’ve been trying to get Google to unban my YouTube account which has the only copies of my then 2-year old daughter’s videos. The account was banned because it was “associated with a partner account which had copyright strikes” (no idea what that means). No indication has ever been given what the partner account was or what corrective action I can take. It’s been 8 years of me talking to a bot.
This post isn’t about any of those things and I only mention them because I’m not naive enough to think that Google has my best interests at heart. I expect anti-competitive and “evil” behaviour, which is why what I experienced recently is even more shocking. Here’s the story:
My Dad recently retired and I helped him set up his civil engineering consulting practice. In an effort to avoid Google we signed up for Zoho Mail, which we’ve been quite happy with. The web interface isn’t great but we use the mobile app and Microsoft Outlook mostly. It’s cheap, reliable and the support is great. We like it.
Everything had been going good until one day I sent an email to a customer we’ve been having email communication with for months. This customer has a Gmail address and Zoho has never had an issue delivering or receiving mail from Gmail. Until I sent one recently and received this bounce-back (personal info redacted):
A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error.
Reporting-MTA: dns; mx.zohomail.com
Arrival-Date: Tue, 7 May 2022 22:26:25 -0400
Original-Recipient: rfc822; MyCustomersEmail@example.com
Final-Recipient: rfc822; MyCustomersEmail@example.com
Last-Attempt-Date: 7 May 2022 02:26:32 GMT
Diagnostic-Code: 5.7.1 [<ip address> 12]
Our system has detected that this message is likely unsolicited mail. To reduce the amount of spam sent to Gmail this message has been blocked. Please visit https://support.google.com/mail/?p=UnsolicitedMessageError for more information. o25-20020a637319000000b003f6298dd4e0si28694668pgc.355 - gsmtp
This is an email that I have sent at least 50 emails to in the past and received a higher number back. Suddenly, Google has deemed that me emailing someone I clearly have an established relationship with is spam. I tried sending it a couple more times but got the same error. Then I noticed similar behaviour happening with other, but not all, Gmail accounts. Following the support links led nowhere because we’re not Google customers, we’re a Zoho customer. I could only conclude that either their AI is very dumb, or this is nefarious behaviour.
As a business we can’t risk not being able to send email to Gmail accounts, so are now forced to switch from Zoho Mail to Google Mail. My Dad needs to reliably operate his business and be able to send email with confidence that it’ll get there. Since Google ultimately has discretion on what it considers spam, there is no recourse for someone like me or perhaps even Zoho.
There is no happy ending to this story, only a realization that monopolies don’t become monopolies overnight. They also don’t need to acquire their competitors. It’s easier to adopt adverse operational practices in gray areas to pull customers who don’t want to be customers, and jeopardize competitors operating in good faith. Turns out that if you control the recipient, you also control the sender.