Check out your email newsletter signup form and landing pages. Do you use a CAPTCHA? You know, the box at the bottom of online forms that asks you to piece together garbled text and disintegrated images. This spam protection tool, while intended for good, is too flawed to use and it’s costing you customers.

Where’d CAPTCHA come from?

Spammers use automated systems to fill out hundreds of forms at once in hopes of getting access to sensitive, valuable data. Without protection, a heavily trafficked website could rack up a heavy load of spam to sort through. Lois von Ahn created the first CAPTCHA system to prevent automated abuse of online forms.

The Problem with CAPTCHAs

A basic CAPTCHA requires visitors to untangle a knotted-up image or interpret a word-jumble and type in the correct phrase to proceed. Since computers can’t make the same interpretation, CAPTCHAs are supposed to block spammers and let legitimate visitors through. Too bad this protection irritates everyone. The same jumbled words and pictures that screen out computers too often stump humans as well. You’ve probably come across a CAPTCHA and had to try (and fail) several times to get through.

Anti-Spam Protection Not Worth The Cost

Just the anecdotal evidence we all have of CAPTCHA suggests it’s a busted system. After failing CAPTCHA multiple times, I feel frustrated, even a little humiliated. All of a sudden, the free download, purchase or whatever it was seems further away and maybe not even worth this trouble. Chances are good I’ll abandon any online form that makes me feel bad or costs me too much time.

A 2010 report from Stanford University found that image puzzles take 9.8 seconds on average to complete and audio CAPTCHAs nearly 30 seconds. That could be double the amount of time it takes fill out the actual form. No way anyone’s going to rack their brain for half a minute just to get your ebook. And a study by Moz in 2009 revealed that CAPTCHA use resulted in a potential 3.2% loss of conversions. Those could be your visitors who tried to contact you, but had a bad enough experience on your website to abandon their attempt.

Think about how many people your website’s CAPTCHA turns off every day. Now, consider how many of them are blind. Obviously, the visual anti-spam puzzles don’t work for them. But Stanford’s study proves that the audio alternative is no better. In fact, The National Federation for the Blind received complaints about an online petition on the White House website. This form was actually inaccessible to the blind due to its CAPTCHA protection. The painful irony is it may be harder for ordinary web visitors to get through CAPTCHAs than robots and spammers.

Bottom line: don’t block your marketing and your web visitors with a CAPTCHA.

What If I Need A CAPTCHA?

While even the BBC once gave up on CAPTCHA, it does diminish spam form submissions. You should try to avoid it, but heavy traffic and lots of attention on your forms might require you to use a CAPTCHA to fend off increased spam.

Form building services like Formstack and Wufoo offer it as a standard anti-spam measure in addition to their own other security measures. Wufoo even claims it will only show the CAPTCHA field if it detects spammy abuse. There are other alternative anti-spam techniques too, some requiring advanced programming skill and others that are just plain silly.

For small business marketing, start your forms without CAPTCHA and minimize the time and effort it takes for web visitors to fill out your forms. Make it easy. If down the road you get excessive spam entries, the cost of CAPTCHA might be worth it. Until then, keep away from the flawed system.

Have questions about online signup forms or internet marketing? Get in touch, we’d love to help.