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


Recipients (and their mail providers) don’t care if you think they want your mail

There, I said it (and so did Laura at Word to the Wise, among others).


During my years in the email industry, I’ve heard countless senders try to explain to me and others why their messages really aren’t spam. Usually it involves the fact that the messages are personalized, the recipients have been highly targeted, and the products or services advertised aren’t illegal or inherently spammy (you know, like male enhancement and Nigerian princes). If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “We’re sending email people want to receive,” I’d probably be swimming in nickels Scrooge McDuck-style. I’d have to think that phrase is probably right behind “Let me tell you about my business model” in the lexicon of things spam fighters and anti-abuse staff never want to hear.

Many of the senders making these arguments fall into the B2B market Laura mentions in the above-referenced WttW article. They are often sending to companies or individuals in a specific industry or who they believe are in the market for certain products or services, who are just waiting for some shrewd marketer to find their email address and send them an unrequested solicitation for a product they didn’t even know they wanted.

If your recipients didn’t ask for your emails, they’re spam. You are sending spam and are, by definition, a spammer. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or mean that your business is illegitimate. It also doesn’t (necessarily) mean your mail will get filtered or blocked, but it does mean you’re at a higher risk of your mail being rejected or sent to the spam folder because technically it is spam. It means the major mailbox providers are working to prevent mail like yours from reaching their users’ inboxes. And if you’re sending in certain jurisdictions, it may even mean you’re committing a crime.

All the major mail providers are using engagement metrics to determine how to route mail. Mail that consistently gets opens, replies, and other positive engagement is going to end up in the inbox. And consistently, the mail that gets that type of interaction is permission-based. All the subject line optimization, flashy promotional content, and discount offers in the world can’t give you the kind of consistent engagement you’ll find from sending to people who asked for your emails. It’s an extremely simple concept – but one that many marketers seem to not quite grasp.

– BG

Spam filters change. Deal with it.

“But I didn’t change anything!”

courtesy http://shop.cnc-design.fi/
courtesy http://shop.cnc-design.fi/

We’ve all heard it (and maybe even said it). When your mail suddenly starts landing in the spam folder with one or more mailbox providers, the first response is often to point the finger at the mailbox provider or even your own Email Service Provider, since you just know nothing changed with your mailing program. However, even when you don’t think anything has changed, there are often many unseen factors that can make or break your email deliverability.

Sure, whether or not your mail reaches the inbox – or even gets rejected by the recipient – is often affected by things that are easy to see. Changes like sending to a new list, adding IP addresses or domains, or trying out all-new message content are easy to pinpoint when delivery issues arise. But they’re not the only factors that cause failures.

The performance of your mailings can change almost daily, and can be one of the biggest factors in how your mail gets delivered. User engagement, both positive and negative, plays a huge role in inbox rates. If users are opening your mail, moving it into the inbox or Primary tab, assigning a label, responding, etc., that positive engagement is more likely to improve your inbox delivery. If users ignore your message, move it to a bulk folder, or lodge a spam complaint, it could spell bulking or even rejection due to negative engagement.

You probably already know all of this, right? Every email blogger in the world has drilled engagement into your head. But don’t let your eyes gloss over just yet…

What you may not be considering is that these behavior patterns can change without any major change on your part. Maybe the offers in the past couple of emails haven’t been as appealing to your customers, so they’re not opening. Or your business is more seasonal, and engagement rates are lower due to the time of year. And what about other factors that may increase spam complaints, like general email fatigue around holiday seasons? All of these factors can affect where your message lands, though they may not be the most obvious at first glance.

But let’s assume for a minute that you’re right – absolutely nothing on your end has changed. Your open rates are identical, content is constant, and no seasonal malaise has taken hold. Even if true, that’s only one side of the coin. Mailbox providers, ISPs, and spam filter operators regularly change their filtering criteria, which could send your mail from inbox to spam folder at the flip of a switch. Some providers, like Gmail, are “smart” about these changes and base the adjustments on observed user behavior and complex algorithms. In fact, many of the factors that impact delivery at Gmail can change almost daily, based on mailing patterns.

At the same time, many providers make more arbitrary changes – based on observed data as well, but not quite as fluid as those at Gmail et al. These changes might include lowering a spam complaint threshold, or even turning on new spam trap addresses. Often the major blacklist providers like Spamhaus will monitor spam trap addresses for traffic before actually making them active spam traps. Even though you are mailing an address that wasn’t a spam trap yesterday, it might become one today.

As a sender, you simply need to take precautions to ensure your email program is resistant to these changes. If a small change in engagement or filtering criteria is enough to derail your inbox rates, then it’s likely you weren’t following best practices before the change. If you are getting clear permission, monitoring and targeting your most engaged contacts, and cleaning your list of outdated and dormant subscribers, you’re on the right track. But to get the most effective insurance against these changes, you should be watching engagement and list hygiene regularly. Check engagement quarterly or even monthly. Measure which types of content or sending frequency generate the most (and least) engagement.

Even so, there will be times that even those best practices are not enough to navigate the muddy waters of email delivery. Fortunately for you, there’s a whole segment of the industry who specialize in email delivery, privacy and compliance.

To misquote a famous tome, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, hire an expert.”

– BG