Best Practices, Industry Updates

Haunted by phantom clicks?

30934456975_ffeba8fb7e_bWith Halloween just around the corner, it’s common to see all sorts of scary surprises pop up in your home, neighborhood, or even workplace. But over the past few months, an increasing number of senders have been experiencing a more sinister surprise in their email metrics: phantom clicks.

What are phantom clicks, exactly? They go by various names – some in the industry call them “URL checks during the SMTP transaction,” while many senders refer to them as “bot clicks” or “link crawlers.” All of these terms are used to refer to clicks that are made not by a person, but by an automated anti-abuse system before the mail is delivered. When these systems receive a message, they will follow one, some, or all of the links in the message to determine their target. These checks are designed to ensure redirects are not being abused by spammers and scammers to hide the true destination of their links.

If you track clicks via ESP link tracking or another analytics solution, this can cause your metrics to indicate a recipient clicked in your email even if they never did.  And even worse, these phantom clicks can activate ‘single-use’ links like one-click unsubscribes or opt-in confirmations. Many senders have reported contacts being unsubscribed because of this type of link checking.

When a message is sent to a recipient using these services, the system makes a determination whether or not to check the links in the message. Depending on that decision and on the specifics of the service, they will check either certain links, all links, or no links in the given message. But how do they decide? As with most filtering algorithms, the specific methods are proprietary and well-guarded. Even so, there are a few practices and factors that are more likely to cause your links to be validated:

  • Multiple levels of link redirects. Are you using your ESP’s tracking link along with a separate analytics redirect? You’re likely to be targeted for link validation. Limit your link tracking to a single redirect if you must.
  • Single-use or encoded URLs. Links that are recipient-specific or otherwise unique from the other URLs in the message can be a red flag as well. If your links are encoded, the filter may see each link as a separate domain and therefore suspicious. Disable link encoding and avoid links that perform an action with a single click if possible.
  • Domains with poor reputations. This one can be tricky if you are linking to third-party websites. If the target of your link is a site that is known to be referenced in a lot of spam messages or has a poor web reputation, filters are likely to follow the link. If it’s your own domain that has a poor reputation, you’ll continue to see these issues until you resolve that. Otherwise, keep your links to third-party sites to a minimum.
    (Our Resources page can help if you need to check the reputation of a domain.)
  • Misaligned domains. The more different domains linked your message (including the header), the more suspect your message appears. When possible, ensure your message’s return-path, mail from, and link tracking domains are all the same. If you use an ESP, many allow a ‘whitelabel’ option that allows you to make this happen with only a few DNS changes on your end.

This is by no means an exhaustive list – hundreds of factors come into play for each decision made by these systems – but following these guidelines should help minimize your chances of sighting these phantom clicks.

– BG

Deliverability 101, Delivery Essentials

Deliverability 101: The Big Three

For over a decade now, those of us who work in email have talked about the “Big Four” email providers. This was used to refer to the four largest providers of consumer mailboxes in the industry: Microsoft, AOL, Google, and Yahoo. In online discussions and on email distribution lists, they were often known by the keyboard-friendly acronym MAGY. Early this year AOL and Yahoo merged under the Oath brand, whittling the Big Four down to three and prompting a new acronym: OMG.

For years, each of these companies has provided free email accounts to anyone with internet access and a few basic personal details to hand over. They (mostly) provide free webmail with virtually unlimited storage, while using the personal data of accountholders to sell advertising that gets displayed within their respective user interfaces. It can often be difficult for senders to identify and/or troubleshoot delivery issues, as each provider’s primary duty is to their users and advertisers and senders can get left out in the cold when searching for answers. Here’s a brief primer on each of the Big Three to help you along.

Microsoft (Outlook.com, Hotmail, MSN)

microsoft

If you’re reading this on a computer, you’re probably familiar with Microsoft. As the purveyor of Windows, their name is found on most of the computers in the US today and they’ve been providing free email since 1997.

Starting as Hotmail then eventually rebranded to Outlook.com email, Microsoft’s freemail offering remains one of the most popular.

Troubleshooting

Microsoft provides a number of tools for senders to monitor and troubleshoot delivery to their users. Signing up for their Feedback Loop (dubbed the Junk Mail Reporting Program or JMRP) is a must to ensure you receive complaint data from MS. Integrated with JMRP, Smart Network Data Services (SNDS) provides senders with insight and daily monitoring of their mail delivery performance. Instead of discrete numbers, SNDS uses a color-coded system: Green means that more than 90% of your mail went to the inbox, Red means that less than 10% made it to the inbox, and Yellow indicates something in the middle (generally closer to Red).

The provider recently started to merge their consumer offering Outlook.com with Office365, their business-class email solution, but still offers separate remediation processes for each service. While there are rumors of the Outlook.com support form working for both products, no official confirmation has been issued. Until it is, the Office365 Delist Portal should be your first stop for problems sending to corporate domains using hosted mail.

It’s also important to note that the filtering for each product remains separate – SNDS does not include data from Office365 and B2B mail may be routed differently than B2C, even from the same sender.

Oath (AOL, Yahoo, and Verizon mail)

oathWhile Oath is technically the newest company on the list, their email offerings have been around for quite some time. AOL (originally America Online) provided dial-up internet and email service to millions of users in the mid-1990s, then began to offer their webmail for free to non-AOL users in 2006. Yahoo started its email service in 1997 with the acquisition of the Rocketmail platform. In late 2017, the two services were merged and became Oath.

Troubleshooting

Prior to their merger, AOL was known for being one of the most responsive providers when seeking assistance. They offered an online reputation tool, a remediation form that generally received quick responses, and a knowledgeable, helpful Postmaster team. Yahoo was known to be a bit more of a black box when troubleshooting delivery issues, although their bounce messages and the troubleshooting pages associated with them were fairly descriptive.

Since the merger, mail to both AOL and Yahoo addresses are being directed through Yahoo’s mail servers. Many of the most common Yahoo bounce responses are now being seen with AOL addresses, and Yahoo’s Postmaster documentation and support form (login required) are the de facto method of receiving support for delivery issues.

Google (Gmail)

googleGoogle’s Gmail offering is the youngest of the Three, having been introduced via private beta in 2004. Experiencing meteoric growth, it eventually overtook Yahoo and Microsoft to become the most popular freemail provider in 2012. Today, Gmail addresses typically make up a significant portion of any consumer email list – often more than half.

Troubleshooting

Unlike the other providers on the list, Gmail offers no direct method of contact for senders. Their filtering is almost exclusively automated, so even if you know who to contact they’re generally unable to make any changes to the routing of your email. Fortunately they do offer some useful tools for monitoring your delivery performance. Google’s FBL, unlike those provided by other major players, does not pass back specific subscriber data but only aggregate complaint numbers. You can also track these FBL complaints, your IP and domain reputation, authentication status, and mail error rate via Google’s Postmaster Tools.

Because of their unconventional FBL, it’s not possible to identify and suppress those recipients who mark your messages as spam. You’ll instead have to use the data available to you (opens, clicks, site visits from email, etc) to determine if your recipients are engaging with your messages. If you experience delivery issues to Gmail, check the composition of your list. Are most of your Gmail recipients ignoring your emails (no opens recorded in 6-12 months)? If so, that’s likely the cause of the issues. One word of caution when dealing with Gmail: once you start to see problems, it can take weeks or longer to resolve them, so it is generally best to keep your lists clean proactively.
While there are hundreds of mailbox providers out there, these three often make up the vast majority of a sender’s contact database. Learning how to effectively navigate the Big Three is a major step toward mastering your email deliverability.

– BG

Delivery Essentials, Random

Who drafts a kicker?

Now that summer is officially over, the sports fans among us can all heave a collective sigh of relief that our long, football-less drought has ended. Saturdays and Sundays (and Mondays, Thursdays, and occasional Fridays) are now filled with the sounds of play calling, armchair quarterbacking, copious snacking, and the occasional head trauma. On the field, teams rely on every player to fill a specific role – the quarterback leads the team, the running back keeps the defense on their toes, the wide receivers run their routes with precision, and the defensive backs keep the other team from breaking a big play. But what about the kicker?

rxhtc

Long the butt of jokes and now memes, kickers are often seen as nearly an afterthought, and certainly nobody thinks of them when trying to draft a successful team. Nobody cares about their team’s kicker – until he misses. And that’s exactly how many senders think about deliverability.

Crafting engaging content, targeting the right users, and driving subscriber acquisition are often seen as the stars of email marketing: they generate all the revenue and keep your campaigns on the winning side of the scoreboard. But what happens when your marketing stalls out? When only half of your recipients are seeing your email in their inbox?

Your team is supremely talented when it comes to marketing your brand or organization, but trying to solve deliverability problems on your own is like asking your defensive lineman to kick a field goal (in case you’re not a football fan, let’s just say ‘ain’t gonna happen’). You need a deliverability expert on your team to navigate these issues when they arise. Whether it’s a dedicated internal employee, the team provided by your ESP, or an outside consultant, having a specialist available will help ensure you’re able to drive home your messaging.

If a football team ignores their kicker until they desperately need him, chances are they’ll fall short. Don’t ignore your deliverability and let your marketing campaigns suffer the same fate. And if you’re in need of deliverability help, shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help.

– BG

 

Industry Updates

Google announces the death of Inbox

Not with a bang, but with a tweet: yesterday Google announced via Twitter that Inbox, their alternative mail client introduced in 2014, will shut down as of March 2019.

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 10.28.45 AM

The transition guide linked in the tweet notes that some of Inbox’s features will be integrated into the traditional Gmail product, including Smart Reply and snooze/nudge options for delayed follow-ups.

The closure of Inbox is not likely to have a major impact on senders. While messages were grouped slightly differently, the structure of Inbox is similar to that of Gmail’s tabs and labels. With that said, it’s always important to watch your own metrics and be mindful of any changes in Gmail response rates around the time of shutdown.

While Google never released solid numbers, it’s easy to infer that Inbox never gained the kind of traction they had hoped – or maybe it was a glorified sandbox that allowed them to test some of their ideas for the primary Gmail product. In any case, those of us who used it as our daily driver are left looking for an alternative before next spring.

– BG

 

Industry Updates

The not-so-official end of summer recap

081006-f-7824s-1131Now that the little ones are back in school and the neighborhood pools are locking their gates, folks everywhere are heralding the ‘official’ end of summer. While the temps here in NC might disagree, all signs seem to point to the email industry’s slight summer lull coming to a close. Calls from clients are picking up, my unread mail counts are creeping up, and 250ok’s Matt Vernhout is already talking about holiday email.

Before we dive right into the time of the year when marketers burn the candle at both ends, let’s step back for a moment and review some industry updates and notes from the summer months. My own summer was so busy that my writing schedule dropped off, so here’s a few nuggets of information you might have missed.

Deliverability InfernoChris Arrendale of delivery consultant firm Inbox Pros actually released his first book in March, but it really started to pick up steam with readers over the summer months. Deliverability Inferno: Helping Email Marketers Understand the Journey from Purgatory to Paradise introduces both basic and in-depth deliverability knowledge gleaned from years of industry experience. The book progresses through the 9 levels, or challenges, each marketer faces in the journey from email purgatory to the glorious inbox paradise. It even features a brief interview with yours truly – but it’s worth picking up nonetheless.

250ok Deliverability Guide – If you’re in for a shorter read (or something to casually hand your decision-makers to help them understand your challenges), 250ok has you covered. In July, the deliverability solutions vendor released their new Deliverability Guide. The 38-page book shares core deliverability insights that are perfect for getting your feet wet or building on basic concepts you already understand. Best of all? It’s free and doesn’t even require your email address to download.

OMG, look at those domains – Along with the merger of AOL and Yahoo into the new company Oath, a new acronym was formed to reference the “big 3” mailbox providers of Oath, Microsoft, and Google: OMG. Laura Atkins of Word to the Wise coined the term, and Al Iverson’s Spam Resource blog gave us an exhaustive list of domains that fall under the Oath umbrella. Could be very useful in rolling up metrics by email provider (even though AOL and Yahoo email are not quite fully integrated just yet).

Need a job? Marketing agency Merkle is looking for an experienced professional to manage deliverability for a large client. Check out the job description and requirements on Merkle’s site.

More business moves – Earlier I mentioned Chris Arrendale and Inbox Pros, and just this week they made the news again in a big way. Digital marketing agency Trendline Interactive acquired Inbox Pros to become the only agency offering end-to-end marketing support including deliverability consultation and remediation.

– BG

Industry Updates

Oath update: AOL, Yahoo, Verizon MTAs and FBLs

Last week, the Oath Postmaster blog published an update on the status of their email migration. AOL (who previously absorbed Verizon’s email) and Yahoo are moving closer to their end goal of a unified email platform under the new Oath brand.

According to the post, all mail sent to either brand is now “handled by…OATH MTAs.” So when you send to any address at aol.com, aim.com, verizon.net, yahoo.com, or any other domain controlled by these providers, the mail is all routed through the same system – including spam filtering. Reports have been surfacing on some industry forums of AOL bounces for Yahoo addresses and vice versa. As a sender, this also means you should start aggregating these domains for your reporting purposes. Monitoring complaints, bounces, and other metrics for anomalies should consider Oath as a single entity – word on the street indicates most ESPs have already begun this process for their customer monitoring.

In addition, spam complaints for AOL recipients will soon be received via the existing Yahoo feedback loop. Since Yahoo’s FBL is domain-based, all mail to AOL addresses must be DKIM-signed to participate in the FBL (if it isn’t already). If you use an ESP that hosts your DKIM, they may need to double-sign to ensure all FBL complaints are received.

So far, the Oath Postmaster blog and their participation in various industry channels have provided regular updates on the migration. Let’s hope that pattern continues as the two current Postmaster sites are combined into an upcoming Oath Postmaster resource.

– BG

Industry Updates

Spamcannibal’s brief zombie run

Earlier this week the spam blacklist Spamcannibal, which had been returning no listings for a few months, had its domain expire and become redirected to some pretty nasty auto-downloads. Many of us suspected malware because of the multiple redirects and prompts to download a Flash update, but that has yet to be confirmed.

In the meantime, though, Al Iverson was able to get in touch with the operator, who has since retaken control of the domain and is working to sunset the list in a more respectable fashion. So Spamcannibal remains dead, but at least the malware zombies no longer have control of the domain.

– BG