Email: Information every business owner should know

People use email for many things. Even grandma can send and receive photos! If you do not know what email is or have never sent or received an email message, then this article is not for you. I intend for this to be semi-technical and describes features, options and other things people should know about email.

Email Client

An email client is a program you use to send and receive email. Microsoft Outlook, Eudora and Apple Mail are all examples of email clients. An email client can provide many features. An email client connects to your email server to send and retrieve messages.

Some people do not use a program on their computer to send and receive email, they use a web based email system. All that means is they use a web browser (like Internet Explorer or Firefox) to visit a web site. Once on the web site, they log in with their name and password and then they can send and receive email.

Most good email systems provide some form of web access which can be handy to use if you are away from your computer and still need to check your email. You can often even view your messages from a cell phone in this manner.

Email Server

When someone sends you an email, there needs to be some computer out there to receive the message. When you check your email, your email client is connecting to your email server and asking for any new messages.

The email server is "always on" meaning that it sits out there on the Internet waiting for incoming and outgoing mail. You do not need to have your "own" email server, in most cases your internet service provider has one set up or there is one set up at your office. Many web hosting packages you can purchase also include access to an email server.

Webmail, or web-based email

Webmail is basically an interfacse you can use to send and receive email when you are on the go. It can also serve as your primary email client. Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! mail are all examples of services that provide webmail. You visit a web site, such as and log in with a name and password and then you can view your email.

Most decent email services provide you with the option to use webmail at your discretion. When combined with IMAP, your webmail can be a useful tool in the event of a computer crash or when traveling. Make sure to ask your web hosting or email hosting provider about how to access your webmail.


You have probably seen these acronyms before. I will briefly describe what they mean and why you should care.

POP, which stands for Post Office Protocol. It was developed many years ago and is a method of retrieving email messages. Basically, your messages arrive on your mail server and your email client can connect using POP and retrieve them. POP has been in use for many years.

IMAP is a replacement for POP that provides some added features. Imagine you check your email from multiple places. You may have it set up on your computer at home, you may check it from your phone and you may even check it using your webmail when traveling. IMAP allows you to keep your messages on the email server and even organize them into folders. Say you move all emails from a certain client into a folder. No matter what device you view your email with the folders will be there and contain all of the same messages. This is different from POP, where you normally download all of the messages to the one computer or device and that is where they reside.

SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. When you send an email, an SMTP server takes the message and then sends it to the proper place.

There are a variety of related security measures you can use with POP, IMAP and SMTP. You can send and receive your messages securely using SSL (like when you safely type in your credit card information on a web site). Many SMTP servers also require authentication as otherwise people would use them to send spam.

Catch-all email

A catch-all email box can be very useful. Let me start by explaining what that means. A catch-all email box will grab any email sent to your domain name. Say you own and you set up a catch-all email box. Any email sent to an email address that does not exist will go to your catch-all box. That way, you can give out arbitrary email addresses for different things. Say you sign up for an account to read the Chicago Tribune online. You can provide the email address when you create your account and they will send all email correspondence to that address. It can also help your business appear more professional. You can give out the address to people looking to purchase goods and services while you can give out to your existing customers.

A catch-all email box can also serve as a method of spam control. Say you fill out a form for a chance to win a free car. Often these things are traps to get email addresses to spam. If you fill it out with as your email address, you can see when you start receiving email to that address. If it becomes a problem and you are getting a ton of junk mail, you can block that address. I have noticed that people who start using catch-all email quickly find out how useful it can be. When you receive an email, you can see who they "think" they are sending to.

One issue with a catch-all email box is that it can actually increase junk mail in certain cases as much is sent to addresses like and The people sending the junk mail often send messages to common addresses at different domain names.

Forwading your email

You can set up an email address to forward to another address. Say you want the email for to go to Maybe an employee quit or left, you obviously want anyone sending them an email to their work email address to be able to reach someone relevant at your company. You can specify one or more addresses for an email to be forwarded to. For example, your business may be a partnership. You could set up an address and have it go to both of you. That may be useful for things like bank alerts or other messages that are relevant to both of you. You can still maintain your separate email addresses and both receive the messages sent to that address.


With many email services you can set up an auto-reply when someone sends you a message. Perhaps you are going on an African safari and will not have Internet for a few weeks. You could set up an auto-responder to reply with "Sorry, I am in the middle of the Sahara desert. Will be back in March. For now, please contact my associate ..............". Some people use an auto-responder to say something like "Thanks for your message. We value your patronage.....I will get back to you as soon as possible". I find such messages annoying, but they do have a time and place when they are helpful and can help you keep from losing business or frustrating people by your lack of a response.

Junk Mail

Most email servers use some form of junk mail filtering software. Basically, there is software out there that will analyze your incoming messages and try to determine if they are legitimate. The methods employed on your email server are usually beyond your control, but you may have preferences you can set such as the level of filtering: High, Medium, Low or None. You also have preferences with what to do with mail it thinks is junk. You can have the mail server automatically delete them, move them to a special folder or possibly some other things.

I do not recommend having it automatically delete messages, as deleted messages can result in lost business. I receive a large volume of email, and I occasionally find messages marked as junk that are actually real messages from real people. It may seem like a pain to go through your junk folder, but is it any more painful than losing business?

Your email client can also implement a junk mail filtering system. Between using two levels of protection, one on the email server and one on the email client, you can usuaully mitigate the junk mail problem. I use Apple Mail as my email client and it seems to do a very good job once you "train" it. There are components of anti-virus software that will also try to block junk mail, though I have often found those to cause more problems than they solve.

You may also utilize whitelists and blacklists. No, that is not a racial thing. As a method of spam control you can usually specify a list of addresses to either always allow or always block email. You can even set it up to only allow email from people found on your whitelist. That is usually referred to as "exclusive" whitelisting.

Since junk mail originates from many different addresses, blocking each address that sends junk mail probably will not do you much good. There are cases where it can be helpful to block a particular address. This will do nothing to prevent someone from creating a new email account and bothering you from that, but at least it sends them a message that their email was rejected. You can also, on some systems, whitelist and blacklist based on particular IP addresses. Meaning you could block an entire organization from emailing you, at least from their office.

There also exist many different "blacklists" that are operated by people who fight the war against junk email. Many mail servers, when receiving a message, will check one of these large, published blacklists to make sure the sender is not on it. People will occasionally end up being blacklisted from the actions of others and it can be difficult to clear your "good name". Do not send mass junk email and you hopefully will never need to deal with that issue.

Also, as mentioned earlier, using a catch-all email address and then blocking the addresses that are receiving junk mail can also be an effective method of junk mail control.

There is no end in sight to the junk mail problem on the Internet. Various solutions have been proposed by some of the big names in the computer industry. They have yet to prove effective. If you never give your email address to anyone, you probably won’t get much junk mail. That being said an email address that no one has is not very useful.

HTML Email versus Plain Text Email

I feel it is important to understand the difference between "Plain Text" and "Rich Text" emails.

For a long time, email consisted of plain text. No bold words, no larger fonts, no underline, you get the idea. All you could do besides send your text is include an attachment. There is a whole protocol called MIME for encoding attachments and making them part of email messages. I am not going to bore you with that, as most, if not all, email clients handle it for you. Anyways, I hope you can picture what a plain text email looks like. I dread the day when someone who reads this can not.

HTML Email allows you to make your message look "prettier". You can attach a nice graphic, or a company logo, center things, make things bold, use larger fonts and so on. Most well made advertisement emails you receive, as well as most emails from any decent sized corporation use some HTML. I am not going to explain what HTML is in this article, but just think of it as the document format that describes what web pages/email look like.

For many purposes, you would want to send out HTML email. One of the drawbacks is that you are not going to be sure how it will be viewed on the other end. So while your email might have a nice pink background with a cute graphic at the bottom and a big heart next to your name, when someone tries to view it with certain email clients it will not appear correctly. It may even appear as gibberish/indecipherable text to some. Say, for example, you are sending email to someone who is blind. Use plain text.

Sending Bulk Email

People often find the occasion to send an email, whether something important or just something funny, not that I endorse "chain letter" email full of jokes, to a group of people at once. It may be your church group, it may be a newsletter for all of the customers of your business. Either way, it is important to not reveal all of the email addresses you are sending to. For example, say you are emailing your everyone on your customer list, all of a sudden someone else can take that list and email them all as well. You do not want your customer list falling into the hands of the enemy. People are generally familiar with some of the fields you can use when sending an email. Notable examples include: FROM:, TO:, CC:, SUBJECT:

C.C.: stands for carbon copy. The terminology comes from people who use carbon paper to make copies of documents or forms they are writing. Using the CC: field, just like the TO: field, you can specify a list of addresses for the message to be delivered to as well. The only problem with the TO: and CC: fields are that everyone gets to see who it was sent to. Hence the need for the BCC: field. BCC: stands for blind carbon copy, meaning the people listed in the BCC: field receive the message, though people in the TO: and CC: field do not see that they are receiving it.

So, if you are sending out a mass email and you do not want to give away every address, simply put the addresses in the BCC: field, put your own email address in the TO: field, and you are good to go.

The BCC: field may be hidden in some cases, so depending on your email client you need to look around and find out how to make it appear.

Advice on sending out mass emails is beyond the scope of this article. There are excellent services out there, like Constant Contact, that help with managing large email lists as well as allowing people to unsubscribe. You should never mass email people who did not opt-in to receive your messages unless you have a good reason. Though I am not a lawyer, I can tell you that there are laws relating to mass email and you should be careful not to violate them.

Email marketing can be an effective tool. Just steer clear of sending out mass junk emails as it can cause legal issues as well as upset people. You could also end up with your domain blacklisted, meaning most email servers will not accept your email. If you are interested in using email as a marketing tool, contact someone who will carry out your campaign in an ethical manner.

SPF (Sender Policy Framework)

SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework. It is a method to combat a technique known as a "Joe Job". Sometimes someone will, for whatever reason, send out email and list your email address as the return address. People may engage in this activity to discredit your name or company. Sometimes a spammer will just start using arbitrary addresses at one of your domain as the return address. I have experienced this several times and it can be a problem.

A sender policy framework is a method of specifying what computers are allowed to send email from your domain name. It is basically a list of IP addresses (each computer on the internet has an IP address). When receiving an email, the receiving email server can check for SPF information, and if it is there it can verify that the message was sent from someone legit. This must be implemented at the DNS level. If you are interested in implementing a sender policy framework, contact someone knowledgeable.


Almost everyone in the civilized world is using email in one form or another. Knowing about some of the options and features available can give you an edge over your competition, or even just a deeper understanding. If you run a business, make sure you choose a reliable email system.

About the author

Bob Lindquist is an expert consultant with extensive experience building web sites, databases and performing internet marketing work for his clients.  He has over 20 years of experience working with clients from a wide variety of industries along with a degree in Computer Science.  Bob is a professional member of the Association for Computing Machinery.

In his free time, Bob is a volunteer Firefighter / EMT and has served on the boards of several not-for-profit groups.

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