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When giving out your email address on a site, do people still use the mailto:email@example.com syntax for the link?

Does this work with people using web mail clients? I use gmail and whenever I click on a mailto:... link it actually tries to bring up my desktop mail app.

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Firefox has an option to open mailto: links in Gmail. However, most of the time, mailto: links surprise me. Fortunately mailto: links are rare recently. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Nov 23 '10 at 19:56

8 Answers 8

up vote 21 down vote accepted

mailto: links are still the standard way to display e-mail addresses, largely because it's the only way to link to e-mail addresses. Webmail clients generally require a toolbar or plugin to become the default application handler for mailto: links, but it's still better to have the link than to not have it: for people who don't have their webmail service set up to handle mailto: links, then it'll just be the same for them as not having a link. For those who have a properly configured desktop or webmail client, the link is very convenient. And I think it's safe to say that most people, even if they use something like Gmail, have their mailto: application handler properly set up.

The only thing you need to worry about is making clear to users that a link is an e-mail link. Don't do something like:

Give us your feedback on our website.

or

Get help

Those links (not real mailto: links since SE doesn't allow them) could be misconstrued as regular hyperlinks to a feedback form or a help page. So it's best to simply make the e-mail address the link text, e.g.:

Send feedback to: feedback@foo.bar
Get help from our friendly support team: support@foo.bar

As long as you do that, no one will be surprised. And those who don't have a mailto: handler set up, will be able to easily copy and paste the link text (or the mailto: email address from their browser context menu).

Edit:
There are situations where a contact form might work or be preferable, but it's not a universal solution. There are business situations in which personal contact info needs to be published, and requiring people to contact you via a web form instead of their preferred email client is suboptimal. So you should use each where appropriate.

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Check out the "contact us" link at the foot of every page on this and other Stack Exchange sites. –  ChrisF Nov 23 '10 at 21:30
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@ChrisF - IMO, that's an example of this done poorly. There isn't anything to indicate it's a special link. It's bolded, but so is the 'feedback always welcome' link next to it, which leads to a URL. –  Virtuosi Media Nov 23 '10 at 22:11
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@Virtuosi - I think it was OK on the original sites for tech savvy users who would usually check the target of a link in the browser's status bar before clicking. –  ChrisF Nov 23 '10 at 22:22
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I think I disagree on a contact form being less professional. Personally, I think it might be more professional. Creating a working form is far more involved than a mailto link. To me, that represents more commitment and professionalism on the part of the website. Keep in mind, though, that I'm only recommending the form as a point of initial contact. After that, I think it should be solely email through whatever client you choose. The added benefit of the form is you can filter out some forms of spam at the outset and your email address can't be harvested. Still, it depends on use case. –  Virtuosi Media Nov 24 '10 at 2:48
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@VirtuosiMedia: Like I said, a lot of this is probably subjective. And I don't mean that having the contact form itself is unprofessional. I just think not publishing your e-mail address is unprofessional (in certain cases). Consider someone whose email client is part of a managed workflow. Having to make initial contact through a web form could be very disruptive, or at least annoying. Likewise if someone is just trying to look up your e-mail address (e.g. to send you some documents or include you in a business discussion). Having to wait for a reply from you adds an extra delay. –  Lèse majesté Nov 24 '10 at 3:26

Honestly I thought we were past using mailto: links for email addresses (or using email addresses for that matter). We live in the golden age of spam and it is far more plausible to have a contact page or allow people to copy and paste a contact email address as I find mailto: links intrusive and borderline anger inducing when they try and open Outlook all the time when I use Gmail.

They might be the standard, but there is no rule stating that you can't use other methods to achieve the same thing.

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I actually find it quite disruptive. 99.9% of the time, when I click on something that looks like a link, I expect it to take me another webpage. Opening another program automatically is not a great user experience. PDF files have this same problem.

For email, the better course user interface solution is to provide a contact form. It's non-disruptive and you can control some of the output.

If you absolutely must use the mailto: syntax, clearly indicate that the link is special. Using a small envelope icon next to the link is one way to do this (just like the PDF icon next to a link to a PDF document).

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Doesn't using the actual email address as the link label ("You can email me at [myemail@example.com]") indicate a mailto link clearly enough? –  Bobby Jack Nov 24 '10 at 1:04
    
Just like with pdf links, denoting the email link with a special icon can help avoid startling the user with unexpected behaviour. –  kontur Jan 25 '13 at 11:13

mailto: links are relics of a past era. As seen in many usability studies, ANYTHING that looks like a link will be treated as one, even if it is a hyperlinked email address. Nowadays, most users have web-based email clients, and, as you stated, mailto: opens the desktop email system. I dislike even the

"Get help from our friendly support team: support@foo.bar"

example because there still is a chance that a user might accidentally click the mailto link while highlighting the address. This severely disrupts the user experience, which results users leaving the site frustrated.

Simply emphasizing the email address is a better way of indicating an important address.

A better example is this:

"Get help from our friendly support team: support@foo.bar"

I also believe that the majority of users are experienced with copying and pasting sections of text on the web. Therefore, if you want to ensure you please everybody, simply allow the users to copy and paste the email address into the email client of their choice.

By eliminating the mailto: links, you can ensure that they do not appear in unexpected locations. Taking an extra 10 seconds it takes to copy and paste an email address is not going to deter many users; however, placing a link that eats up 30 seconds by bringing up an unwanted program is more of a deal-breaker.

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"most users have web-based email clients" – "the majority of users are experienced with copying and pasting sections of text" – do you have any evidence for these statements? –  Bennett McElwee Feb 26 '12 at 20:47

I'm still in favour of mailto links, because anecdotal evidence suggests many people (myself included) don't trust web contact forms. When you send an email, you can see exactly who it's gone to, you know if there's been a delivery failure, and you have an archive and audit trail of your correspondence. With a web form, you just click a button and hope it gets to somebody. Way too often, you just get an error message about some problem with the website, and then you're stuck.

I would recommend styling mailto links such that they always appear with a little mail icon beside them, though. That at least gives a strong clue that you're about to send an email.

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I've had so many such encounters! Recently, I tried to request an ICC profile from an LCD maker--not only did they have no email address listed, but the contact form's "message" box was just a text input set to a height of 300px to look like a textarea; worse yet, they chose to use JS to send the "form" but the send function was broken, requiring an old IE5/6 ActiveX object. And since they didn't bother using an actual form, I couldn't just fall back on a regular form POST... –  Lèse majesté Feb 28 '12 at 7:49
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So I spent 20 minutes composing an email in a 30-character-wide single-line input box with no horizontal scrollbar, and I had no way to send it. I couldn't even contact the company to tell them how broken their contact form was. –  Lèse majesté Feb 28 '12 at 7:54

This has to come down to audience.

Mailto links are great when dealing with an enterprise audience and outlook is prolific.

Outside of enterprise they have pros and cons. I personally don't like mailto links and don't expect (or want) them on every site. As an example of when I do and don't want them I would expect a form on jezebel.com instead of a mailto but a mailto on nytimes.com. This is strictly based on their content.

See, this makes sense to me because nytimes.com has content I could get away with reading at work. It looks enterprise-ish. Jezebel is stuff that I can't really get away with at work. It's more personal. When I go to contact them I would like a personal experience as well. A nice form that matches the theme of the overall site.

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You should always use a form with validation for the following reasons:

  • All browsers handle mailto links differently
  • Mailto links are a security and privacy no no
  • Web users are being taught to trust forms instead
  • Information tracking and auditing is limited
  • You have little to no control on what is sent to you

Forms are very simple and if you don't code at all then you can use free hosted forms also... http://wufoo.com/

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"You have little to no control on what is sent to you" - that can be a plus also, if you want contacts to be the result of sincere thought put into the message on part of the sender. –  kontur Jan 25 '13 at 11:14

We are struggling with this right now on a school web site. Mailto forms cause problems with web based email clients, but contact forms provide a way for anyone to send an anonymous email to a school. Most of the time that's fine, but there's that small percentage of time when the email is harrassing, abusive, threatening, and/or inappropriate. I wish there was an easy solution.

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Hi @HighSchoolAdmin. Welcome to the UX SE! Can you explain what practice your school decided to use and the rationale behind the decision? At the moment, your post reads more as a comment on the question than an answer to it. –  3nafish May 14 '13 at 16:51

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