The old switcheroo

We’ve talked before about domain and IP reputation, and how mailbox providers use each to determine whether the mail you send reaches the inbox or languishes in the depths of the spam folder. Since so much of your sender reputation is tied to your IP and domain, many senders have the idea that the solution to delivery issues is to simply fire up a new IP, domain, or both, granting yourself the ultimate “do-over” with the mailbox providers. There’s just one problem with that theory…

Wrong wrong wrong wrong
via Tenor

It’s wrong. Last week, 250ok’s Beth Kittle published a great piece on the fallacy of this “email myth.” (If you haven’t yet, go read her post and commit it to memory.) Beth’s illustration of the incognito party guest is a great analogy for how providers spot your mail even when sent from new infrastructure and how your misdeeds will find you there if you continue to use bad practices.

But what happens when you do see a benefit from switching? Over the past few years I’ve spoken with dozens of marketers who had an example of a situation where their deliverability improved when switching to a new IP or domain. They performed a few tests on the new infrastructure and – lo and behold – they got to the inbox! Because of this, these clients often didn’t believe my warnings that new IPs or domains wouldn’t fix the problem – they were more concerned with temporary gains (and quite a few just assumed they’d talk their way into another IP once the new one started to tank). Don’t miss this point: your deliverability may improve when you switch to a new IP or domain – but only temporarily.

I’ll provide an analogy of my own, gleaned from a former coworker who compared IP and domain reputation to telephone caller ID. If you get unwanted calls from a telemarketer, you learn to stop answering when their number shows up on the caller ID. After days of unanswered calls, if the telemarketer dials you from a new number you just might pick up to find out who’s on the other end. As soon as you hear the voice of the unwanted caller on the other end, you’ll hang up and make sure you don’t answer calls from the new number as well.

This is how mailbox providers and spam filters operate – while it’s possible your first mailing might see better performance, as soon as they identify you’re the same sender they blocked before you’ll see those numbers fall off right away. As Beth notes, their algorithms are very advanced and they will quickly find out who you are. If you want to improve your deliverability, there are no shortcuts – you’ll have to put in the work to improve your practices.

– BG

UPDATED – More Google Postmaster Tools weirdness?

Reports have been trickling in today that senders are seeing spikes in “Bad” reputation in Google’s IP Reputation Postmaster page. In checking my own instance, I found at least 3 major senders whose IPs have been 100% Good for months, then 75% or more in the Bad status for July 3rd.

The results appear to be spotty, but multiple industry folks have mentioned seeing similar behavior in popular forums today. No official word from Google yet, but we’ll keep an eye on this and update as news comes in.

UPDATED 1:45PM EST – After further analysis, deliverability to Gmail does not seem to be affected for clients I’ve checked, and a few others have reported the same. Domain reputation also appears to be unaffected for me, but some others have reported changes in domain reputation that may or may not be related. In any case, these blips certainly lend credence to the loudly-whispered theory that major US holidays wreak havoc on GPT data, with yesterday being Independence Day here in the States.

Google Postmaster Tools data update

As of now, data seems to be trickling into my own Google Postmaster Tools display, with some monitored domains showing current data (i.e. 2-3 days ago, as is standard in GPT).

The data is still spotty, though: some domain reputation listings show data points for each day while others show nothing between the 13th and now. IP reputation appears to still be missing for the outage period for the domains I’ve checked that are showing anything since June 13th.

Obviously the issue is not entirely resolved, but it’s nice to see something showing up after 2 weeks of dead silence.

– BG

Another extended Google Postmaster Tools outage

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.

– BG

Yahoo bounces and missing Gmail Postmaster data (it’s not just you)

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.

-BG

Verizon (Media Group) launches Postmaster page beta

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.

-BG

Increased deferrals at Yahoo/AOL/Verizon

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. 

– BG

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: 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