Beware False Link Flattery

If you run a blog, you may have noticed a rash of ‘trackbacks’ or ‘pingbacks’ recently. These are articles on other blogs or websites that link to your posts. When you follow the link to the site linking to you, you may find that your link doesn’t appear within the body of the article at all. In fact you can’t even find it on the page.

If you look closely, you may find a ‘Mouse here for Related Links’, as pictured. Your link is hidden under there. A process, likely automated, has found your post, amongst several others, and is linking to it, in the hope that you will Approve the Pingback and in so doing, create a link from your article to theirs. Of course the link on your article is likely to appear visibly on the page to readers and without a rel=nofollow tag (links like this don’t pass ‘google juice’.

It’s a trap!

Venus Fly TrapThese hidden related links are discounted by search engines because of the rel=nofollow and almost certainly ignored by humans, because they’re not easily found on the page. Don’t fall into the trap of approving any trackbacks or pingbacks without first checking out whether you are being linked to in a meaningful way rather than a spammy attempt like this to dupe you into building someone else’s backlink profile for them. Until spam prevention filters designed to weed out spammy comments (such as Akismet) can also detect things like this, keep your eyes open!

Image Credit: Venus Fly Trap image by BotheredByBees, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Are your transactional emails getting through?

Are your transactional emails falling foul of spam filters? Is nobody getting your order confirmations or password reminders? Here’s why…

I just booked a night in a motel with a major UK chain and the booking confirmation got marked as spam by my mail host’s SpamAssassin filter.

Most websites send a variety of different emails but they can usually be grouped into two basic types: transactional and promotional.

Transactional emails are anything that is triggered by an engagement on the part of the customer – creating an account, submitting some information to a directory, placing an order on an e-commerce site.

Ever get a call from a customer asking “where’s my order confirmation?” Your transactional email is probably being sent to the junk folder (or worse).

What’s stopping them?

There are many reasons transactional emails get blocked, often because they may have a similar profile to promotional (newsletter type) bulk sends.

How to test?

It’s a good idea to regularly trigger transactional emails yourself to test accounts on a variety of email services. Create accounts for yourself with Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo to cover a decent percentage of the global email space and any other significant webmail providers in your country. Try also to test with a variety of other spam filtering solutions that are installed on hosted services such as the open source SpamAssassin and various other commercial filters. There are web based tools that will enable you to run some tests too but these aren’t quite real-world enough to catch all the errors.

How to fix?

Some spam filters insert the results of their tests into the email headers of the message, you can usually find pointers as to what to fix and often it’s just bad message composition. Sending only HTML in an email is a minor black mark. In the case of my booking confirmation email, the biggest penalty was for “FUZZY_XPILL Attempt to obfuscate words in spam”. Googling that found a 2006 bug report that the word ‘Oxon’ (abbreviation for Oxfordshire) is the reason. That’s a 4 year old bug in a filter that hasn’t been fixed yet. Let’s assume it isn’t going to be. If you have an issue like that in your email, stop using the abbreviation and your mails get through.

What if the problem can’t be fixed by changing the email itself?

You might find that your email is being marked of spam not because of what’s in it but who it is sent by. If you have a bad sender reputation then you have your work cut out for you. Hire an email deliverability consultant and do what they tell you, no matter how harsh their criticism of your past practices.

Image credit: abrinsky via Creative Commons on Flickr

Link Exchanges – Dead as Disco

say no moreBack when I was running our e-commerce store and getting the webmaster and other generic address emails, we were inundated with spammy link exchange requests.

You know the type:

I found your website in Google and I’d like to swap links

Reciprocal link exchanges are dead as disco (see this 2005 post from Matt Cutts, Google’s webspam team leader). It’s that simple. Google, Bing and others see them for what they are and if anything they do more harm than good.

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of this guy, asking for a one-way link with nothing in return:

I am in the process of building up a business wrapped about my website and I am looking for some inbound linking to grow my page-rank. If you could link to my site I would be much appreciative. You probably receive quick a few link requests a month so I would really appreciate it if you could help me out by adding my site with this information.

So things have evolved, link-builders are proposing 3-way deals, rather than reciprocal. I was forwarded an email from a client that was offering two homepage links on a PR1 and PR3 website, in exchange for providing a homepage link to a fairly high profile PR6 website.

It seems that nobody told the marketing department at these companies that dubious link exchange schemes aren’t worth the money you’re paying your shady “SEO experts” to run. SEO has moved on since the early years of this decade and working with people like this is more likely to get you removed from the search engines than boosted up them.

There are variations of link exchange emails that won’t even tell you what site they want you to link to until you agree, for fear of you reporting them to the search engines for trying to game the rankings.

Perhaps that should tell them something – if you’re trying to do something promotional that you wouldn’t mention in a press release, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Image credit: Monty Python

Dear Email Marketer

mailfailOK, maybe I’m special, maybe I’m one of the ‘too savvy to be marketed to’ crowd. Or maybe I’m not, and maybe you’re too self absorbed to realise that the rest of the world isn’t inclined to click the ‘load images, with associated “mark me for more spam” that this implies’ button.

Whatever it is, sending emails that look like this to the AVERAGE recipient is just dumb. OK, back in 2000 we had to send plain text emails (hey I did it too) and we had no idea if they worked or not, other than actually, you know, selling the things we’re telling people about, or putting tracking codes on the link, seeing as how click-through is a pretty good measurement of interest. Then we got this amazing capability to display ‘rich HTML’ messages, when suddenly Thunderbird and Apple Mail and Outlook were cool with displaying HTML emails. So we put those sneaky little web bugs in emails that allowed us to count the open rate (as long as your recipients were looking at the HTML version). Then the developers of email clients got wise, and realised that these sneaky little web bugs were giving their users away so now they warn against loading images in an email and don’t load the images by default.

So who thinks it’s a good idea to send emails wholly comprised of broken images to the vast majority of users? I’m amazed open rates are above 10%. Maybe that just accounts for the curious recipient who wonders just what the hell they’ve been sent. What the hell kind of metric is open rate anyway? The data is muddied by the fact that you don’t even know if your email got past the gatekeeper known as the server-side spam filter, so your open rate relative to number actually delivered is anyone’s guess. If you’re relying on forcing the recipient to acknowledge receipt (because that’s what this is all about isn’t it?) by loading images otherwise they see nothing, then you’re acting out of desperation.

Can we dump the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ cliché and get back to the idea that when we’re writing an email to our customers or prospects we are talking to human beings. Bulk emails right now are the equivalent of forcing a flier into someone’s hand. It’s supposed to be capable of so much more. Go (re-)read One-to-One Marketing and Permission Marketing if you don’t believe me. You’re supposed to be able to work out from our past interactions what it is I might be interested in. I’ve spent over £1000 with the company that sent me this. I’ve bought numerous products that should allow them to slice and dice me into a specific group, a buyer persona if you will (mountain biker with a taste for high-end light weight components), then write to me almost personally. Instead they send me something about another business unit entirely just because I agreed to be informed of future promotions. My attention is there to be piqued, not abused.

Quit bugging me

hand over mouthKeeping with the theme of email marketing (see this post about spam from a couple of days ago), this time from the customer’s perspective.

Every year or so I order a few IceBreaker and Bridgedale items from Sierra Trading Post, an outdoor clothing outlet store. Over the course of a year they email me pretty often with details of sales and special ‘we miss you’ discount codes. This is great and I’ll usually order using one of these codes, saving 25% off their already excellent prices. What bugs me is that right after I order I seem to invoke some sort of mailing avalanche. I get an email every one or two days, with another discount code, or a reminder that the discount code they sent me two days ago is about to expire.

I don’t want to unsubscribe from their list because I like receiving the codes, just not right now, plus it seems rude to unsubscribe when they’ve saved me so much over the years.

Meet me half way
What I want is an option that is somewhere between unsubscribing and having to receive then delete/ignore their emails for a while. What if there was an option for “keep me on the list, but don’t send me stuff for a couple of months, unless it’s a really impossible-to-refuse offer”.

I am not a number
Mailing frequency is a difficult thing to get right, it’s tough to gauge what’s best, but mailing managers (and the services they use) need to realise that the people they’re sending to are human beings, not just a number on a list.

Respect your audience
Seth Godin’s post a couple of days ago sparked by his experience with Drugstore.com highlights the fact that you need to respect your subscribers and the fact that every time you send them an email you ask for a piece of their attention. It is essential to keep things relevant to them and recognise their needs. Sometimes they need you to back off, not forever, but for a while.

The next opportunity I get with a client to work on their mailing list practices I’m going to implement a ‘chill period’ whereby someone can say ‘yes, I want to be on your list, but don’t send me stuff for 2 months’.

Image credit: M Lyn

One man’s Spam is another man’s lunch

No Spam pleaseEmail marketing is both one of the most cost effective methods of reaching your customers and the most loathed.

Email marketers have to contend with over zealous junk mail filters, spam crusaders that seek to destroy them and list subscribers who forgot they gave permission. It’s so much easier to ‘report as spam’ than it is to unsubscribe.

I’ve used email marketing myself. I also hate spam. I will only use opt-in lists for this reason. Yet that doesn’t stop recipients of emails I’ve sent replying with torrents of abuse for daring to darken their inbox, and those are the ones I’ve heard from.

Many users will just instruct whatever spam filter they use to block an email. Depending on how that spam filter works, that action gets reported and if enough people do that, the sender of the email gets blacklisted. In the case of an opt-in list this is sailing pretty close to a collective act of defamation.

When users mark an email as spam, and that blacklists the sender and prevents other subscribers, who would gladly have received (and may even have been looking forward to) that email from benefiting from the content of it.

There is a solution, though it’s only partial, in the form of FBL or FeedBack Loops. Setting them up is a little complicated, though is often included in the service provided by reputable email marketing providers. I say partial because it only provides a solution for large email providers/ISPs like AOL, Comcast, Hotmail and others (a non-exhaustive list can be found here), and has to be set up with each ISP, per sending domain. An entry on the FBL for an ISP means that when one of that ISP’s customers reports your message as spam, instead of you getting blacklisted, you get a report, requiring you to unsubscribe that user. An FBL however makes no difference if the recipient of an email isn’t using their email provider’s web interface, a third party spam filter

What is needed is a concerted effort by providers of spam filtering solutions, internet service providers (as users of those spam filters), email client developers (web and desktop) and email marketing vendors. All it would take is a recognised standard email header for ‘unsubscribe address’ and ‘unsubscribe URL’, which email client software, or the spam filter in use, would interpret and communicate with, instead of placing a black mark against the sender. The email marketing vendors (or the DIY sender) would handle the unsubscribe submissions. The list might get smaller but the deliverability goes way up.

This appears to be the way Google are going with their unsubscribe option in Gmail. Criticism of this by email marketers is levelled at the wording and operation – equating unsubscribing with reporting spam. It fits with Google’s usual m.o. of trying to simplify a process as much as possible, as long as the sender does what they’re supposed to.

Who loses out? People who don’t play by the rules. Everybody else wins. The spam filter providers have shorter, easier to process blacklists. Email providers and email marketing vendors spend less time processing blacklist removal requests and finally the end user who wants a mailing is guaranteed to receive it.

Image credit: Thomas Hawk