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Format HTML Email for AOL

By Thomas Granger



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America Onlineâ„¢ is a source of frustration to a great number of Developers and Web marketers around the world. When you consider AOL you have to remember that you’re not just dealing with a custom Web browser — you must also account for the manner in which AOL runs their Network.

As a general rule, we usually send a text version of our email newsletter to AOL subscribers. It was reported by AOL several months back that only 50% of AOL subscribers had upgraded to the 6.0 standard, which contained better HTML email support than did the previous version. With the release of AOL 7.0, we anticipate that more users will be able to read the HTML versions of newsletters, ezines, and other business communications.

AOL’s browser is basically just a custom "skin" or "branded" version of Internet Explorer. It’s the AOL proxy server that makes the Web browser behave differently than it would through a normal dial-up or LAN connection. Two primary reasons for these differences involve how AOL processes graphics and handles caching.

One of These Things is not Like the "Others"

A common complaint is that images often look blurry on AOL’s browser, and in many cases they exhibit black bars, distortion, or lines running through graphics.

America Online utilizes a compression software on any graphics which run on its Network, in order to speed up the delivery of Web pages and HTML to its members. It accomplishes this by compressing images and various multimedia applications that run across the Network. AOL uses the proprietary Johnson-Grace image format, .ART. All BMP, GIF or JPG images are automatically converted into the .ART format by AOL default. An AOL member must deselect the "Use Compressed Graphics" option under their Web Preferences in order to avoid this.

Cache Me If You Can!

Once AOL users have selected not to use AOL’s compressed graphics option, they must still clear out their cache in order to see a difference. In their WWW Preferences, they must set their history to "0" pages and then clear the history. Once they’ve done this, they must delete the files in their Temporary Internet Files folder. AOL offers the follwing instructions on how to accomplish this:

"Holding down the "Control" key on your keyboard and simultaneously mouse-clicking on the Browser Reload icon while the browser window is active will also clear your proxy cache and display the latest data from the Website."

Some Background Information

Often, backgrounds used in the designs of both HTML email and Web pages will display as "tiled" when they’re viewed in the AOL environment. This is due to the compression algorithim that’s used by the Johnson-Grace compression software. A JPG that’s wider than 640 pixels will be scaled down by AOL. You may use a GIF as a replacement for large background JPGs, or try to save your JPG as "Progressive 3-pass", which the current version of the Johnson-Grace software doesn’t recognize.

AOL Has Its Own Format

Character formatting is only mildly supported by AOL. In order to format your email for AOL and get an idea of how your email will look to AOL recipients, you should start by eliminating all of the hard returns at the end of each line.

Justify my Paragraph

All paragraphs should be left justified and have no indentation. There should be 2 spaces between each sentence, as this provides white space. Every time you want to indicate a hard return, place <BR> at the beginning of the next line. For paragraphs, use <BR><BR>, not <P> at the beginning of the line. Also, there should be no space between the <BR> and the first character of the line.


Do not use <BLOCKQUOTE>, the tab key, <CITATION>, or other tab formatting methods. You won’t like what you see, or, for that matter, what your recipient will see. It’s far better to just use spaces whenever you wish to create an indentation or tab.

Character Emphasis

You may use normal character emphasis tags as you feel neccessary for your mailing and message (<I>, <B>, etc.).

Bulleted, Ordered and Unordered Lists

Unfortunately, you cannot create lists using the traditional <OL> or <UL>, ordered and unordered list tags. The common workaround seems to be to simply enter the bullet number, followed by several spaces:

1) Whatever
2) Whenever

For bulleted lists, you merely need to replace the above numbers with an asterisk or other ASCII character:

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* So on..
‘ And so forth..

"Don’t Quote me on this…"

Quotes and apostrophes do not translate well into AOL email. When you enter these types of characters, be sure to use ASCII Low characters. Furthermore, if you’re using a program like Microsoft Word or other Office product to prepare your text/HTML before you enter it into your mailing, you should be aware of Office’s auto formatting feature.

If you cut and paste from Microsoft Word, there is always a chance that some formatting will not carry over into HTML very well. This is most often seen in the case of auto formatting, when MS Word converts common keystrokes into symbols, including -, "", © and a host of others. These are called Windows Characters, and Word represents them as numeric values, which a browser cannot understand.

This is why it’s always best to work in text mode, or save your document as a dos text document and lose all formatting before you transfer it to your HTML email.

Strange characters may inadvertently be inserted into your email if you don’t use a text-only editor such as Notepad or TextPad, to write your content.

Isn’t That Special

You’ll need to treat all special characters, those that are generated through an escape sequence (&trade; &nbsp;), as plain text. There isn’t currently a known workaround that allows you to instert special characters into your AOL email effectively.

Additional Resources

For more information on AOL issues, visit the AOL information, and:

Tom is Executive Director for Florentine Design & Marketing, a full service firm located in the Seattle-Area and a Source Code and Template Resource portal. He writes on the topic of HTML Email and Flash Email, with an emphasis on the technical and troubleshooting side of things.

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