Deliverability 101, Delivery Essentials

Deliverability 101: Spam traps

It's a trap!Recently we presented a basic guide to blacklists using a rather colorful example ripped from today’s headlines. In that post we described what happens when you’re on a blacklist, but as a sender you probably want to know how to avoid getting blacklisted in the first place. And if you’re already blacklisted, you’ll certainly want to find out how you got there. Understanding spam traps can help with both.

What is a spam trap?

While the name might conjure thoughts of being lured into a sticky situation via canned meat, a spam trap is actually an email address. Sometimes referred to as honeypots, spam traps are addresses that exist for the purpose of identifying senders who are not following best practices.

A spam trap isn’t used by a real person to send or request email. Each trap is monitored by the trap operator (typically a blacklist or mailbox provider) and any mail sent to the address can cause the sender to be put on a blacklist. While the potential exists for blacklisting based on a single message sent to a trap, providers most often look for patterns of repeated hits. This could mean multiple mails to the same trap address, mail to multiple distinct trap addresses, or both.

There are two main types of spam traps in the wild: pristine and recycled. Pristine traps were created for the sole purpose of being a spam trap. These addresses have never been used by a real person and have never requested any emails. If you send mail to purchased lists or scrape addresses from the web, there’s a good chance you’ll run into this type of trap.

Recycled traps, by contrast, are the type most commonly seen by legitimate email marketers. These email addresses did, at some point in the past, belong to a real person. That person likely sent emails, signed up for mailing lists, and provided the address to others as their point of contact. Then, for whatever reason, that person abandoned the address – maybe due to an organizational change or migration to a new mail provider.

Once the recipient abandoned this address it sat dormant for some period of time (generally at least 6 months), during which time the address would have rejected all mail. After that period, the address was reactivated and became an active spam trap.

How do spam traps get on my list?

Since spam traps are designed to identify senders not using best practices, it stands to reason that failure to follow best practices typically leads to their presence in your database. Mailing to recipients who have not given opt-in permission, sending to old or outdated lists, and lack of proper bounce handling are some of the most common reasons spam traps end up within your list. In addition, typographical errors at the time of address collection can introduce traps into your list – particularly with less accurate address collection methods such as point-of-sale address transcription or collecting addresses via telephone.

What happens if I have spam traps in my list?

When you send mail to a spam trap address, the trap monitor will note the sender of the message and typically take some action against that sender. Most trap monitors also maintain their own blacklists, and in many cases these blacklists are publicly used by many ISPs and mailbox providers to filter mail. In short, sending to spam traps will probably get you on a blacklist, and that blacklisting will probably get your mail rejected by at least one major email provider.

I’m not being blocked. Why does it matter if I have spam traps in my database?

If you receive word (from your ESP, delivery monitoring service, or a trap owner) that you are sending to spam trap addresses, it’s tempting to gloss over the warning if you’re not seeing any large-scale delivery issues. A word of advice? Don’t ignore spam traps.

The presence of spam traps in your contact database is an indicator of an underlying issue with either your email acquisition practices or your list maintenance protocols. When you have spam traps in your list, you are sending mail to contacts that don’t want it or never requested it. This means that alongside the traps, you are also mailing real people who will (at best) ignore your message or (at worst) report you to their mailbox provider or a third-party spam filtering service. Even if the spam traps haven’t gotten your mail blocked (yet), you can bet the spam complaints and low engagement are keeping you out of your recipients’ inboxes.

How do I get the spam traps out of my list?

Removing spam traps from your list is, by design, a difficult process. A spam trap doesn’t (usually) bounce or reject mail. It doesn’t provide any signs or signals that it’s a trap. The trap operator doesn’t want you to be able to spot the traps in your list, because then you could simply remove the traps and not address the underlying issue.

If you have traps in your database, the best place to start is typically contacts who haven’t engaged with an email (opened or clicked) recently. Typically, we recommend targeting contacts who haven’t opened in 6-12 months. Send a confirmation request to those non-openers, asking them to confirm they are real and they still want your messages. Once that message is sent, you’ll want to suppress from your list anyone who doesn’t respond. It’s also a good idea to repeat this process at least once a year.

In conjunction with addressing spam traps already in your list, you want to make sure you cut off traps at the source. Check your list acquisition practices to be sure all of your incoming recipients have opted in for your mailings. Add CAPTCHA to any public-facing web forms to prevent automated sign-ups. Think about adding a confirmation step to your opt-in process. This could be a traditional confirmed opt-in (COI) where recipients have to click a link to be confirmed, or it could be a “soft confirmation” that considers an open to be a confirmation action.

If you can take actions that make it harder for spam traps to end up in your list, you’ll proactively decrease your risk of dealing with the difficult process of culling your list to get rid of them later.

Have a war story or questions about dealing with spam traps? Leave a comment or shoot me an email to chat!

– BG

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Industry Updates

Google Rolls Out ‘Gmail Postmaster Tools’ for Senders, Improved Spam Filters

Google Postmaster Tools

Many in the email industry have a love/hate relationship with Gmail: they love that their opt-in mail usually gets delivered to the inbox without any trouble, but they hate that there seems to be no help from the Gmail team for those times mail doesn’t make it to the inbox. However, an announcement on the Gmail blog today could prompt a change of heart from many senders.

Starting today, Gmail is rolling out a new feature called Gmail Postmaster Tools, which it says will allow senders to “analyze their email, including data on delivery errors, spam reports, and reputation.”  These tools, which are presumably the evolution of Google’s pilot FBL program of 2014, are designed to help senders “do better” at getting mail delivered to the Gmail inbox.

The Gmail team also announced that their spam filtering technologies are becoming even more advanced, including the use of an “artificial neural network” to identify spam that might seem like normal, wanted mail at a glance. In addition, they have made improvements in honoring individual preferences (I like newsletters but my friend doesn’t), as well as sniffing out well-spoofed phishing emails.

Keep your eyes on the WhatCounts blog for an upcoming post with more details on the Postmaster Tools and how they can help get your mail delivered where it belongs.

– BG