Understanding Email Blacklists and How to Deal with Getting Listed and Delisted

Published by: Andrew Paul    |   Category: Blog, Email Marketing, IP Reputation    

Keeping Off Email Blacklists

Before I dive into this discussion, I think we can all agree that spam sucks and we all hate spam. Getting bombarded with Viagra, porn, Nigerian 419 scams and utter garbage email on a consistent daily basis is a hassle and nothing more than a pain in the ass. Most estimates of the global spam being sent is somewhere in the 80%-90% range. This means that 8 or 9 out of every 10 emails sent worldwide are nothing more than garbage, junk or spam. Emails sent to lure you into download a virus, give your bank account info away at a fake banking website or an attempt to sell you something through a barrage of email received on a daily basis. Stopping the constant influx of spam is extremely important, but at what cost?

What is an Email Blacklist?

An email blacklist is usually either DNS or Domain based. The principle and how it works is quite simple. When an email is sent, the receiving email server queries a real-time database that uses predefined criteria to determine if the sending IP address or domain name is responsible for sending email that is unsolicited or considered spam. If the IP address or domain are listed in the blacklist, the recipients email server rejects any incoming email or simply refuses the connection and attempted delivery of the email from the blacklisted server.

How did my email server end up on a Blacklist?

That’s a very good question and doesn’t always have a logical answer. It could be due to an unknown virus or bot infection that’s sending spam from your server or has turned your server into an open relay for spam to be relayed through it. If you’re on a shared server, it could be one of your neighbors who’s not playing by the rules. They could be sending junk emails from your shared IP and you’re simply caught up in the mess of your idiot neighbor who decided to send spammy promotional emails from a corporate email server.  You could be listed for actually being a spammer, it could all be a big mistake or a minor error. If you’re sending promotional or transactional emails and generating complaints (people clicking the spam button) or forwarding your emails to Spamcop could also be an easy way to end up on a blacklist. If you go from low sending volume to high sending volume, this is another way to get yourself listed. There is also the possibility that someone who uses an IP address that is near your IP address is sending spam. When the Blacklister decided to block an IP Range, your IP address got caught in the IP range listed. This usually sucks and there isn’t much you can do about it other than dealing with the problem. As you can plainly see, there are a number of really good ways to get blacklisted. So the question becomes; Now What?

How to get delisted from a Blacklist.

Sometimes a much easier question asked than answered. Below are a few, quick simple things you can do without thinking too hard.

  1. If you’re spamming, STOP.
  2. If you’re infected by a virus or BOT, clean it up.
  3. If you’re on a shared host and your neighbor is spamming, ask your web host to remove them from your shared server. (They should normally do this without you even asking – If they’re a good hosting company.)
  4. If you’re sending promotional emails to your optin email list and people are complaining, you need to figure out why and change your evil ways. Understanding why people complain isn’t always easy, but common sense will usually be a good indicator. Complaints are normally caused by your emails looking like spam or sounding like spam. (Although there is one upside to complaints. You know your emails are being delivered to the user’s inbox. People don’t complain about emails being delivered to their junk or spam folders.)
  5. It could also be your sending volume – too much of anything isn’t good – or so they tell me. People don’t want to receive promotional emails from you 3 times per day, no matter who you are. An article you should read that discusses this in detail: Stupid Mistakes That Kill Email Marketing Performance.
  6. It could be that the Blacklist made a mistake and improperly listed your IP(s) or domains. (No, that could never happen, right? – We’ll get to that later)

Once you’ve figured out that you’re on an email blacklist and why, the next step is to get delisted. Sometimes you don’t have to lift a finger, the listing will automatically drop off after a few days. Sometimes it takes a little more work and you have to go to a website, enter your IP or domain and tick a box that you swear you’ll never spam again and they’ll remove you. Then there are some other blacklists where you have to send an email to them or fill out a form on their website. Sometimes you’ll receive a response and other times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll be removed and other times you won’t.

Understanding Email Blacklists and who you’re dealing with

In a world of hundreds of different email blacklists, which are also known as “block lists”, the majority are worthless, unimportant and simply don’t matter. Only a very few matter, in the big scheme of things, if you ever get listed. Let’s take a look at one of those Blacklists – Spamhaus, so we can understand how they operate and what to do if you get caught in their web.

Who is Spamhaus and how do they operate?

According to their website, Spamhaus is a non-profit based in Switzerland and the UK, who provides DNS based spam blocking services to ISPs as well as private companies worldwide. They claim to have a staff of 38 in 10 countries. They claim to be protecting 1.9 Billion user’s mailboxes.

Spamhaus and their Nonsensical de facto Obligation

Spamhaus believes that they somehow control the flow of email and whose email is accepted or rejected, based on their rules, regulations and decisions. A large percentage of online marketers find Spamhaus’s actions extremely troubling. While there is no legal requirement or obligation to use a double opt-in procedure, Spamhaus’s rules mandate a de facto obligation to use it. If you don’t, they can simply list your IP address or block of IP addresses in their database. This will then cause your email to be rejected by the majority of ISP’s who use Spamhaus’s DNS based blocking services. What recourse do you have? NONE.

Dealing with Spamhaus

Absent any backlash from major ISP’s, a huge outcry from legitimate marketers, a court ruling or legislation that forces Spamhaus to change it’s ways, Spamhaus will likely remain the Dictator of Blacklists and continue to force their requirements down the throats of marketers worldwide. Without oversight, they’ll continue to effect innocent parties by dictating who can send emails and who can’t. Spamhaus has been sued, numerous times, for a multitude of claims, including defamation and tortuous interference. If you read Spamhaus’s website, they attempt to provide legal advice to discourage anyone from suing them. This is actually pretty funny – they’re providing legal advice to anyone considering suing them.

Spamhaus has No Oversight

Spamhaus does what Spamhaus wants and answers to no one. They have crowned themselves judge, jury and executioner. There is no appeal process – What they say goes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why? Because they simply stop responding to your emails once they have made up their mind – while providing no proof whatsoever. Why? Because they don’t have to.

If Spamhaus continues blocking legitimate marketer emails for failing to play by Spamhaus’s rules, the likelihood that Spamhaus will face new lawsuits in the future, where its methods will be challenged, is extremely probable. Spamhaus’s actions combined with its market power in the United States could also subject it to antitrust claims.  Beyond legislative action or litigation, email marketers caught in Spamhaus’s web need to follow the complex and time consuming process to be removed from their Blacklist. Although, as stated above, this isn’t always possible.

Getting around the Spamhaus Blacklist

If you’ve tried contacting Spamhaus through the normal channels and find yourself sucking wind with no response from the Blacklisters and your still on their IP Blacklist, known as the SBL, here’s what you need to do. If you maintain and manage your own corporate email server, getting around Spamhaus’s SBL Blacklist is quite easy. Use a third party relay service such as Google or Microsoft. It’s quite easy to setup and you can be assured that Spamhaus isn’t stupid enough to block Google or Microsoft, just to block you. (Think Again – In 2010 one of the geniuses at Spamhaus blocked some Google and Gmail IP addresses).

Closing thoughts on Blacklists

While I believe blacklists in general are a good thing and the use of blacklists can benefit everyone, I believe there needs to be a standardized delisting process and oversight. Blacklists can be very effective, especially when they are run efficiently and using a standard set of rules. When there is no oversight or a detailed process, to get an erroneous listing removed or a way to escalate a mistake, this increasingly deteriorates the entire process and makes the blacklist as a whole, ineffective.  Is it better to let a little more spam through versus blocking a legitimate email sender, when it affects their livelihood or business?

Full Disclosure and my personal disdain for Spamhaus

On June 10, 2015 we received a notice from Spamhaus and one of our carriers that a /24 (256 IP addresses) we controlled was listed in the Spamhaus SBL. We found this somewhat interesting since this /24 was never used to send email, we never received a single complaint regarding this /24 and only 15 of the 256 IP addresses in the entire IP block were ever used.

We followed the steps through Spamhaus’s website to have the erroneous listing removed and were then notified a few days later that we were added to the Spamhaus Rokso list (Register of Known Spam Operations) and associated with an unknown and unrelated company that appeared to be out of business. Spamhaus also notified us that an additional /22 (1024 IP Addresses) we controlled were now listed by them in the SBL. They also decided to list a /28 (16 IP Addresses) which were our office IP’s, and included our corporate email server. Beyond this they then added our corporate domain as well as roughly 30 other domains we owned or controlled to their DBL (Domain Black List). WHY? Really good question!

As we tried, in vain, to have this error corrected, which we didn’t think would be a big deal, we were sorely mistaken. While Spamhaus wasn’t contending that we sent spam or even sent commercial or promotional email campaigns, they never even addressed any of our questions or listing concerns. They simply continued to add to the listing and try to tighten the screws. The only definite conclusion they provided is that they; did not approve of email list cleaning or email validation services. Just to be sure I wasn’t mistaken or misunderstood their contention about not sending spam, I sent three follow up emails to them but never received a response to any of them. It got to the point where I needed our attorney to send them an email about removing the Rokso listing, which they did after receiving his email. Spamhaus stated in their response; “We removed the Rokso listing because we did not have enough proof that both companies were the same”. Are you fucking kidding me? Sure let’s hang the murderer before we have a trial. If we make a mistake, Oh Well. As a follow up, the original Rokso listing that we were associated with on the Spamhaus website is no longer listed.

Spamhaus Lawsuits

While Spamhaus has been involved with a few lawsuits over the years, I believe they have dodged a few bullets because the plaintiffs in those lawsuits did not fully prepare or realize what it was going to take to get the job done.

While I can’t speak to specifics, my crystal ball tells me that a smart plaintiff, an antitrust claim, a claim for damages and a group of intelligent attorneys could likely put an end to the Naziesque mentality that Spamhaus condones, as well as put an end to their unmonitored abuse once and for all.

Understanding the Importance of Sender and IP Reputation

Published by: Andrew Paul    |   Category: Blog, Email Marketing, IP Reputation    


IP Reputation Email Marketing

Do you ever wonder why when sending an email marketing campaign, or receiving an email from another company, some emails end up in the inbox while others find their way directly to the junk or spam folder?

The most important factor in determining whether your email is marked as spam, and ends up in the junk folder, or goes to your subscriber’s inbox is directly related to your sender and IP reputation. While there are other factors, your IP reputation is inevitably the most important. Sender reputation is directly associated with the IP address of the email server you are using to send your email campaigns. ISP’s (Internet Service Provider) score a sender’s IP address or reputation by assigning a value or score, weighing various factors related to email marketing activity. They then use their own algorithm or scoring metrics to determine your reputation and if your emails will be destined for the inbox, junk folder or simply rejected. In essence, your sender or IP reputation indicates to an ISP the trustworthiness of the source of the email that is being delivered. What constitutes a trustworthy sender will vary from ISP to ISP, so in order to build a strong sender or IP reputation you’ll need to understand all of the factors that ISP’s look at when determining a score and how or if to deliver your email marketing messages at all.

A sender or IP reputation is built over time. Simply setting up a new IP address and sending your emails from it won’t guarantee that your emails will make it to the inbox. Oftentimes clients don’t understand why emails being sent from a brand new IP address would land in the spam or junk folder. Their rational is usually, “This is a brand new IP. The IP reputation can’t be bad. Why would they send all of our emails to the junk folder?”  A brand new IP with no history of email activity is normally regarded as suspicious by the ISP, because they do not know anything about the IP address that is being used to send the emails. You can think about it the same way banks use credit scores. If you have no credit, payment history or credit score, a bank is less likely to give you credit or loan you money. While if you have a good credit history of paying your bills on time and being diligent about your finances, banks are more likely to lend you money or extend you the credit you’re asking for.

What factors are used in determining your sender and IP reputation?

  1. Spam Complaints – How many users click the spam or junk button when receiving your emails? What percentage of recipients complain about the emails they receive from you and your ever so important IP address?
  2. Clean Email Address – Having a list of email addresses that are valid and deliverable are also a key factor in scoring your IP reputation. A quality email list, will in most cases, allow you to deliver your emails to the user’s inbox. Email List Cleaning and Validation is extremely important because it stops you from sending to invalid and undeliverable emails. Having a high percentage of hard bounces (bad or undeliverable email addresses) is a sure way to let the ISP’s know your list is either old, scrapped, purchased, not optin or simply not maintained. While validating your email list is extremely important, cleaning your email list is equally critical. Sending to spamtraps is a sure way to ensure, even if you did before, you’ll no longer be able to deliver your emails to the users inbox.
  3. Volume of Email being sent – If you normally send to a list of 3,000 emails twice weekly and then decide to buy a list and start sending to 300,000, you’ll normally find out pretty quickly that your emails are being rejected or being sent to the spam folder.
  4. IP Blacklists – Most ISP’s will use some type of external blacklist to see if your IP address is negatively listed for either sending to spam seeds or complaining recipients.
  5. Valid DNS – Ensuring that the DNS is correctly setup for your sending domain and the IP address is validated to allow you to send from it is critical in delivering your emails without any problems. The main DNS records that need to be correctly configured are: A, MX, SPF, Domain Keys (DKIM), and Reverse DNS
  6. Email Content – While the content or keywords in your email is important, most industry experts will agree that it only accounts for approximately 20% of the score determining if an ISP will accept and deliver your email to the inbox or spam folder or outright reject the email being sent.

Conclusion – Delivering your Email Marketing to the Inbox

If you have your domain and IP configured properly in DNS, clean and validate your email lists regularly, send to only optin email addresses of your customers or people who have signed up to receive emails from you and don’t send spammy looking emails that will entice a recipient to click the spam button, you should be OK. Following these basic rules is the framework of any responsible email marketer.

How do I clean up my email list?

Published by: Mira Martinez    |   Category: Blog, Email List Cleaning, Email Validation, IP Reputation    

Managing an Old or Outdated Email List?

So you have an email list of people you haven’t sent to in a while, a list you collected at a trade show, from another source or a number of smaller lists you have been collecting over time. Now what? What do you to ensure that the email addresses are still valid and deliverable? Before you load up the list and send it out through your favorite ESP (Email Service Provider), make sure you clean and validate your email list. Sending an email campaign to a list that you are unsure of is an easy way to get suspended or kicked off your ESPs platform. The reason for this is simple, IP Reputation. Most ESPs use a common block of IP addresses for the majority of their smaller customers. These IP addresses have a reputation. If everyone using these IPs sends to clean and deliverable email addresses, that generate very few bounces or complaints, the email sent will be delivered to the inbox the majority of the time. If you take your questionable email list, load it up and send out a campaign and receive a large percentage of hard bounces and complaints, your ESP will most likely give you the boot. This is because you are damaging the IP Reputation for all the other users on the same IPs and reducing the likelihood of everyone delivering their messages without issues.

Your ESP isn’t meant for List Washing

Thinking you can just take your old, unused or untested email list, load it up and pull the trigger, isn’t such a good idea. Most ESPs will see your high bounce rate and if you start generating too many complaints, will pull the plug on your campaign and show you the door. Taking shortcuts and trying to save a few bucks will most likely cost you more in the long run. Following the rules and implementing best practices when executing a successful email marketing strategy will be your best bet in the long run and bring in the highest ROI (Return on Investment). Enforcing a stringent and clear rule set, when it comes to your email marketing strategy, will go a long way and help you build a better and longer lasting overall marketing plan to increase your followers, clientele, business and sales.

You should consider reading: Is Your Email Marketing Strategy Like A Bad Case of Diarrhea?