There’s no surer way to have things break than to take a vacation, and it seems that adage again rings true in the deliverability world. During my own time away from the office, it seems Google Postmaster Tools has stopped reporting data for all categories.
In my own experience – and the experience of many others in industry forums – no data has been provided for any tab since June 13th. As usual, there is no official statement from Google but word is that a Google rep has acknowledged they are working on the issue.
While it’s not uncommon for GPT to miss a day or two of data here and there, an outage of this length is fairly rare. The last outage of this magnitude was (if I recall correctly) in April of 2018.
There has been some discussion around how these outages often correlate with major US holidays (Easter, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day have all been hit) but there seems to be no confirmation of why. Increased volume causing delays in processing? Resources allocated to higher priority areas? The API upgrade? Whatever the cause, it’s likely we’ll never know for sure.
If you’ve worked in the email industry for more than about a week, you have probably heard sending to purchased lists is bad. If you use an ESP, they’ve almost certainly told you it’s not recommended and (in most cases) not allowed. So why do folks keep purchasing lists, and keep trying to send to those purchased lists?
Part of the problem is the differentiation between the B2C and B2B markets. Most of the major consumer (B2C) email providers have made great strides in mail filtering, implementing complex algorithms and machine learning designed to identify potentially unwanted or unsolicited email and stop it in its tracks. Consumers, who use mail primarily to communicate with people or brands they know, appreciate this and have come to expect it. They also offer feedback loops, which allow recipients to lodge spam complaints which the mailbox provider (usually) forwards to the sender in the hopes they will remove the complainer from the list.
Business email (B2B) tends to be a bit different. While many corporate domains have their email hosted by a major player like Microsoft or Google, the filtering is unique and corporate email suites allow more customization by the mailbox owner or their IT team. Corporate domains also rarely have feedback loop capabilities – if the recipient complains, the sender receives no indication of this. As a result B2B marketers are often more likely to purchase a list, using the justification that the lists don’t generate spam complaints (see the FBL comment above) and that the lists are often targeted to specific business functions or roles. And while it’s true that neither US CAN-SPAM nor Canada’s CASL explicitly outlaw sending to purchased lists, it’s still a bad practice.
Need more proof? How about a position statement from the Messaging, Mobile, and Malware Anti-Abuse Working Group (you might know them as M³AAWG)? M³AAWG is the industry group tasked with identifying and working to eliminate abusive practices in the messaging space and is made up of a lot of folks you’ve heard of. The 3 major US mailbox providers are all active members, along with most notable international providers, ESPs, blacklist operators, and spam filter vendors.
Last month the organization released a position paper identifying the purchase of lists in any context as an “abusive practice” that generates high volumes of unwanted email and drains corporate resources. They also discuss the potential legal ramifications of purchasing lists along with the poor data quality often associated with these lists. If you or someone else in your organization is considering purchasing a list, this statement will help shed some light on why it’s a bad idea.
It’s that time of the year again: the sun is out, birds are chirping, flowers are starting to bloom…and Yahoo is disabling unused accounts (technically it’s Verizon Media Group, but the bounce message is vintage Yahoo). At least, we think they’re disabling unused accounts…
What we know: Senders in multiple industry forums and channels have reported increased bounced rates from VMG over the past couple of weeks, with many of the bounces indicating “[t]his mailbox is disabled.” There’s been some debate over how permanent these disablements may be, but the prevailing wisdom is that a bounce of this nature is likely to be permanently bad and should be removed from your mailing rotation.
Gmail Postmaster Tools data issues
Along with the VMG bounces, many senders have been commiserating about the lack of Google Postmaster data for the past few days. Like most who have reported this problem, the most recent data in my own account is from March 23rd (in my case, data also appears spotty for about a week leading up to 3/23). The unofficial word is that Google’s technical team is aware of the issue and working to resolve it soon.
Earlier today, VMG (the mailbox provider formerly known as Oath) announced via Tumblr that their all-new Postmaster page is live. The page, which will serve as a unified resource for all things delivery-related for AOL and Yahoo mail, will soon take the place of the venerable but languishing AOL Postmaster site.
At the top of the page, a message informs visitors the site is “still in beta mode. Things might not work.” Prominently featured on the page are the most recent posts from the provider’s Tumblr, along with some links to Tools, FAQs, and FBL resources.
I’m not alone in thinking AOL’s Postmaster site was one of the best and most informative around, and it’s nice to see VMG carrying on this tradition.
Over the past 10 days or so, many senders have reported an increased number of deferrals for recipients at Yahoo. These deferrals also affect AOL and Verizon addresses, since these are now all running through Yahoo’s mail servers. I’ve seen this firsthand for a few senders, and similar complaints are mounting within various industry channels.
While most of the deferrals seem to be Yahoo’s common “TSS04” error, some senders are reporting other error codes citing limited resources that may or may not be related to this issue. Backing off mail sending (via MTA automation or manual throttles) appears to be having less impact than usual – significant portions of the mail continue to time out and never deliver.
Many senders also report that they are seeing no increase in Yahoo/AOL/VZ complaints to correspond with the surge in deferrals, and some even report a notable complaint decrease. But what changed?
Yahoo’s Postmaster Support has not been able to provide any official response. Some senders report a temporary reprieve after contacting support while others are receiving little to no information from their requests. If you’re experiencing these deferrals, know that you’re not alone. Keep your backoff protocols in place, your Support tickets open, and hold tight until more news drops.
With 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.
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.
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.
Now 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 Inferno – Chris 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).
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.
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 Postmastersites are combined into an upcoming Oath Postmaster resource.
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.