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

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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

More missing Google Postmaster data (UPDATE – it’s back)

6/1/18 UPDATE: And just like that, the data is back. Reports (as well as my own account) indicate the data is currently populated until 5/30. The data typically runs about 2 days behind in my experience, so it seems the issue is likely resolved.

This Monday’s Memorial Day (US) holiday and its extended weekend was accompanied by many reports of missing data in Google’s Postmaster Tools. In my own account (as in most of the reports I’ve seen) the data stopped rolling in on May 24th. Unlike some previous instances, all GPT data appears affected – Spam Rate all the way down through Delivery Errors.

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We’re as confused as this guy. (courtesy Google)

Each time this happens, many of us hope it’s the oft-promised Postmaster Tools update – the one that brings API access, flexible dashboards and other as-yet-unannounced Google Goodness™. Thus far that hope has been unrealized….but there’s always next time. In the meantime, we’ll just stick to hoping Google restores the missing data in a timely fashion.

Industry Updates

Missing data at Google Postmaster Tools

Over the past week, there have been many reports of missing data for Google Postmaster Tools. From what we can see, it appears data on the Spam Rate, IP Reputation, Domain Reputation, Feedback Loop, and Delivery Errors tabs stopped updating for some folks around April 11th or 12th. According to information posted in an industry forum, Google is aware of the issue and working to resolve it. Some progress has been made, but no official statement has been made (seems to be par for the course with Google).

GPT

As of this morning in my own account, most tabs have data up to 4/13 (with a gap on 4/12) and data for 4/17, but everything between is missing. It remains to be seen whether the missing data will be restored. After a similar issue last September, Google was able to restore the data pretty quickly – hopefully that will be the case here as well.

– BG

Industry Updates

Gmail not displaying images by default for some messages (UPDATED 4/5/18)

There have been some reports floating around today of Gmail not displaying images for some messages.

CaptureIn my testing I’ve been able to reproduce it with some messages in the Promotions tab, but only in the “classic” Gmail web interface. However, these same messages display images when viewed in Inbox.

This seems intentional, although no official announcement has been made. Maybe Google is launching a push to encourage migrating to Inbox? We’ll await word from the Gmail team, but in the meantime more testing is in store to pin down exactly what in the message is triggering the change.

4/5/18 UPDATE: It seems this change was not permanent, with all messages appearing to display images (even those previously not displaying them). Google has been silent about this, so we’re still unsure if this was some sort of test, an error, or something else entirely.

– BG

Industry Updates

Yahoo introduces Google-style image caching in email (UPDATE: confirmed with more details)

Geocache Cache Small Geocaching Logbook In late 2013, Google began to cache all images in email sent to Gmail users, storing remotely-hosted images on their own servers instead of accessing them each time an email is opened. Laura at Word to the Wise wrote up some good info at the time, focusing mainly on the parts of email tracking that were (or were not) affected by the changes.

Fast forward to 2018, and it looks like Yahoo has adopted a similar policy of image caching. According to Litmus, Yahoo recently began caching images on their servers in the same manner as Google. And like Google’s version, this one won’t break open tracking –  but could cause some unusual data points or issues with geolocation or user agent tracking. If you track the location of email opens, you’re likely to start seeing a lot more traffic from Sunnyvale, CA (the location of Yahoo’s servers), and any dynamically-generated content based on the location of the recipient will reflect that. In fairness, IP geolocation has never been a precise science, so most marketers should rely on other signals along with that data to serve up location-specific content.

When Google introduced this feature, they used it as a platform to allow images to load by default for all mail sent to the Inbox. There has been no announcement or indication thus far, but Is it possible Yahoo is planning a similar feature? As with most of the changes taking place under the new Oath umbrella; we’ll just have to wait and see. Yes, according to the answers provided by the Yahoo Engineering blog.

This morning, they officially announced the change, also confirming images will now be on by default for Yahoo and AOL in desktop and mobile versions. We can likely presume this applies only to messages in the inbox, though no specifics are provided. The post also indicates that Yahoo will “continue to support most” open tracking via pixel, though again details are sparse.

And for those using IP geolocation to serve dynamic content, the authors “recommend falling back on other tools and technologies which do not rely on IP-based targeting.” I won’t say I told you so.

– BG

Industry Updates

Gmail’s Inbox offers to unsubscribe recipients from mail they’re not reading

Last month Al Iverson at Spam Resource, along with Engadget and XDA developers, reported on a new feature of Google’s Inbox that prompts recipients to unsubscribe from mailings they don’t open. The card, which appears at the top of the interface, calls out mailings categorized as Promotions that the user hasn’t opened in the past 30 days and provides the option to unsubscribe or not, all with a single click.

Edit_Post_‹_DELIVERY_COUNTS_—_WordPress_com

Introduced in 2014, Inbox is Google’s next-gen email client. The app takes Gmail’s concept of the Tabbed Inbox to the next level, bundling messages by type and showing cards based on data found in emails – receipts for purchases, travel arrangements, and event tickets, for example. At the time of Al’s post the feature was live on the web and Android versions of Inbox, but I can confirm it has now arrived in the iOS version as well.

According to Litmus, Gmail accounts for roughly 26% of all email opens – second only to Apple’s iOS mail client. This doesn’t indicate what percentage of those openers use Inbox as opposed to traditional Gmail, but Google has previously indicated that Inbox has a significant number of users and in 2016 noted that 10% of all email replies on mobile came from the Smart Reply feature found within Inbox.

Google continues to innovate in finding ways to prioritize mail its users want and get rid of mail they don’t. Does your email strategy reflect that? If your sending patterns and list management foster engagement and interaction, you’re likely to see less of an impact from a change like this. Alternatively, if you’re still holding on to the “batch and blast” mindset, you may not be so lucky.

– BG