Anti-spam Alternatives to Website Contact Forms

Anyone who's made their first, fledgling forays into web design is likely, at some point, to have gone looking for a good website contact form.

I've used them. If you're a web designer, you've probably at least considered using them. Many businesses, small and large, continue to use them. Which raises one question - why?

To be honest, I think for many newcomers, it's a case of wanting to do what the big boys do. You probably don't really need a contact form but, like Flash intros and animated dropdown menus, you've seen them on other websites and they look sort-of professional.

Rule 1: Don't ever do something purely because other people do it.

OK, so let's say it's about welcoming feedback from your site visitors. You actually care about what they have to say, and want to make it as easy as possible for them to get in touch.

A feedback form makes it easier for people to contact you who don't have a desktop email account - people who might otherwise have to copy and paste your email address into Hotmail, or Gmail, or whatever they're called nowadays (Live Mail and Googlemail? I'm not even sure...).

But what about people who have a desktop email account, who just want to click on a 'mailto' link and have a blank email pop up?

Rule 2: Don't over-complicate things by trying to make them easier.

Finally, perhaps you're worried about spam. You know spammers crawl websites looking for email links and then add them to their lists, so you've got an awesome Java-based feedback form that disguises the destination email address.

This is reasonable - your customers' emails are no use to you if they're lost amongst a sea of spam. But it's not ideal, and here's why:

Rule 3: Don't damage your website's usability or accessibility, purely to combat spam.

Spam is a menace. This is true. But your efforts to overcome it should never be to your own detriment - if, by pre-empting spam, you're making your website harder to use, then you're turning potential lost earnings into guaranteed lost earnings.

It's akin to having a double mastectomy in order to avoid breast cancer later - you may have made the right decision, and you may think it's better to be safe than sorry, but you'll never know if you might have lived a lump-free life anyway.

The Alternative

Erm, I don't have a cure for cancer. But I do have a reasonable alternative to feedback forms, and it comes in two stages.

Firstly, let's assume some of your visitors have web-based email accounts, and an on-page feedback form is easier for them than launching their email site, copying your address over, and manually typing out an email.

Fair enough - give them a feedback form. A spam-proof, prescriptive, here's-what-you-can-tell-us form that will translate their ticks, radio button selections and text into a single email and send it over to you.

Now, let's assume some of your visitors are stubborn, and want to get in touch by email, with the freedom to choose what they type.

Simply create a link using code such as this:


(Try it here: bobpbardsley@gmail.com)

It's a simple piece of code, but the addition of ?subject= to the mailto link lets you specify a subject line - now simply tell your visitors to leave that part intact, and use it to filter incoming mail to that address.

You can easily specify the same subject line for responses via your feedback form, and combine communications via the two methods into a single stream of customer contact.

The Warnings

If you look into the method described above on other websites, you may come across certain warnings, threatening that it will break web browsers.

Well, I've never known it to break Internet Explorer, and I've just tested it in Chrome without any problems. I'd bet on it working just fine in Firefox too, but don't take my word for it - run a couple of tests just to make sure.

Even if it doesn't work for any particular visitor to your site, they'll still have the feedback form there to use if they need to.

The point is, don't tell your visitors you welcome their emails, and then have a website entirely devoid of any visible contact email address - it's misleading and offputting.

If you must focus solely on contact forms, say so on your site - explain that you have a focused customer service department who respond to enquiries in the order they are received, and that using the form enables you to get through as many enquiries as possible in the shortest possible time.

For heaven's sake, don't tell me I can't email you because you're afraid of spam, otherwise what are you trying to protect? Nothing but an empty inbox.

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