Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Web forms are not a replacement for email


You run an online business. You need a way for people to contact you. But if you publish your email address on your website, then spammers get hold of it. The solution? Don’t publish your email address. Instead, put a contact form on the website. Good idea, no?

No. It’s not a good idea. While contact forms have their uses, and they’re certainly a very valuable addition to publishing your email address, they are not a substitute for it. Here’s why.

If you are running an e-commerce site based in the UK, it’s illegal.

Yes, really. The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 state that:

A person providing an information society service shall make available to the recipient of the service and any relevant enforcement authority, in a form and manner which is easily, directly and permanently accessible, the following information—
the details of the service provider, including his electronic mail address, which make it possible to contact him rapidly and communicate with him in a direct and effective manner

That’s pretty clear. Law firm Pinsent Masons, who specialise in online law, spell it out a bit more clearly in their guidance:

The email address of the service provider must be given. It is not sufficient to include a ‘contact us’ form without also providing an email address.

Unless you’re happy about breaking the law, therefore, you have no choice but to publish your email address on your website if you are engaged in any kind of e-commerce.

It’s not user-friendly.

OK, so maybe you don’t care about the law. Or mabe you’re not running an e-commerce site, and hence the law doesn’t apply to you. But it’s still a bad idea to force your users to contact you via a form.

Using a form leaves no permanent record with the sender. When I send an email, I’ve got a copy of the email in sent in my outbox. If I use a form, I don’t have that unless I manually copy and paste the content I’m submitting into another document and store it.

It breaks continuity of replies. When I get a reply to an email, if I need to follow it up I can simply reply to the reply. If the only way of making subsequent contact is the form again, then there is no continuity between the different messages.

I can’t be certain that the form worked. With email, I usually know if something hasn’t been delivered. With a form, if I get no reply then I have no way to tell if that’s because the form failed or because I’m simply being ignored. And, if I do want to submit the form again, just in case, I can’t simply resend it, like I can an email; instead, I have to retype it (unless I copied and pasted it into a saved document the first time, of course).

Forms often require data which simply isn’t relevant. I don’t necessarily want to have to give you my phone number and postcode, for example, just to be able to make a simple query.

Forms are often less accessible to the visually impaired. Many people with visual impairments use specially adapted email software. Forcing them to abandon that and use your website form instead is almost certainly a breach of anti-discrimination legislation. But, you may say, surely if someone can use a website then they can use a form? Well, no. Maybe they can’t use the website. They could ask someone to tell them the email address so that they can use it in their own software. Or they may use dictation software which won’t work with your form.

In conclusion

Don’t replace your email address with a web form. Even if you aren’t legally obliged to publish your email address, there are many good reasons why you should. It isn’t necessary to publish it in a format where it can be obtained by address harvesters, provided it’s simple enough for people who understand what it is (see the “about” page of this site for an example). But, if you run any kind of service where people will want to contact you, then letting them do it by email is a must.