How Many Folders Do You Really Need? Classifying Email into a Handful of Categories

Nov 3, 2014

Email classification is still a mostly manual task. Consequently, most Web mail users never define a single folder. Recently however, automatic classification offering the same categories to all users has started to appear in some Web mail clients, such as AOL or Gmail. We adopt this approach, rather than previous (unsuccessful) personalized approaches because of the change in the nature of consumer email traffic, which is now dominated by (non-spam) machine-generated email. We propose here a novel approach for (1) automatically distinguishing between personal and machine-generated email and (2) classifying messages into latent categories, without requiring users to have defined any folder. We report how we have discovered that a set of 6 "latent" categories (one for human- and the others for machine-generated messages) can explain a significant portion of email traffic. We describe in details the steps involved in building a Web-scale email categorization system, from the collection of ground-truth labels, the selection of features to the training of models. Experimental evaluation was performed on more than 500 billion messages received during a period of six months by users of Yahoo mail service, who elected to be part of such research studies. Our system achieved precision and recall rates close to 90% and the latent categories we discovered were shown to cover 70% of both email traffic and email search queries. We believe that these results pave the way for a change of approach in the Web mail industry, and could support the invention of new large-scale email discovery paradigms that had not been possible before.

  • CIKM 2014: 23rd ACM Conference on Information and Knowledge Management
  • Conference/Workshop Paper