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Jun 05, 2002

ALERT: Hotmail Link Fix Might Be Temporary - Tips for Broadcast Emailers and Email Advertisers

SUMMARY: Warning: Any hotlinks you may have sent to Hotmail users in the past may not have worked.  There is a chance they will be broken again in the future.  Which reduces your click through rates. We strongly advise email marketers, email newsletter publishers, and anyone who advertises in email newsletters, to read this quick article.  You will get advice in non-technical English that explains what is up and how to measure your campaigns in future to avoid problems. Plus it includes links to three useful resources.
Today we were going to bring you a special report on how to solve one of the biggest problems email publishers and advertisers have faced (although many were unaware of it): Hotmail links not working.

For more than a year, any link you sent in an email message to a Hotmail user that was longer than around 22 characters (reason why the length varied below) simply did not work for many Hotmail users.

This means that even when your tech support person went to look into it, he might not have been able to duplicate the error! As you know with tech support, if they can not duplicate it, they say, "It’s not broken."

In fact, we were not able to duplicate this error yesterday and today, when we started to write this report, which is why we believe it is fixed, for now. We do believe, however, that it will be back.

The broken link problem has nothing to do with the problem of text links wrapping, and thus, not working (more about that further down). It is due to the way that Hotmail nests your links in its own links. If the combination of your link plus their (very long) link exceeds a certain length, then your link gets cut off, and the window that Hotmail opened to display your message would say the link was invalid. Hotmail users, of course, assumed that your link was broken when you sent it out, making you look baa-ad.

Many email marketers and publishers using HTML do not worry about this, because they say, "Oh, our link appears to be short on the screen." However, the actual link URL; the one that Hotmail was nesting within its own link; is often long enough to cause problems. If your list host nests your links in its own tracking links (and most do), then your link is even longer, and more likely to be cut off.

Clickable banner ads generated by link-tracking systems with indecipherable tracking codes on the end are especially likely to be cut off.

Today we were going to expose the problem and hand you some useful solutions. When suddenly, it went away.

All fixed; or so it appears.

The erratic nature of the problem in the first place leads us to believe that the fix might not be permanent. (Yes, we are in touch with Hotmail to get an official statement on the topic, but they were not able to respond by press time. We will bring you updates in future weeks.)

How does this (apparent) fix affect email marketers, advertisers and publishers?

Well, you may find that your response rates from Hotmail accounts get a slight lift. Which is a happy thing. If you notice they fall off again, check with customer service to see whether you are getting “link doesn’t work” email from Hotmail users again.

It is also a good reminder to track your campaigns and issue clickthroughs by which ISP your recipients use; HotMail, Yahoo, AOL, Earthlink/MindSpring, Verizon and other smaller ISPs grouped as one. Yes, your response rates will be different for these because their user demographics vary, and whether users consider them "primary" email boxes vary too.

Plus, when you track by major ISPs you will be able to spot deliverability and response-related issues (such as filters stopping your email or hotlink issues) and react quickly to improve your results.

About link-wrapping:

Most veteran broadcast emailers are very well aware of the following problem, but we thought we would add it in for the newbies in the crowd.

If your email, or your ad in an email, is received in text (vs. HTML) format by anyone, and your link is longer than 60-65 characters long (including http://), it will break in most recipients’ inboxes. Which means it will not be clickable.

(Faux) example:

In order to use it, recipients will have to cut and paste each line of the link into their browser. Let's face it, no matter how great your copy is, most clicks are impulse clicks, and people are lazy. You will lose that traffic if you make them cut and paste anything.

This affects you if you publish a text-only newsletter, if you advertise in a text-only newsletter, if you mail a text-only broadcast campaign, or if your link appears in the text-only version of an HTML email.

(Most people forget about that last part.)

Make sure your ad or link tracking system does not create links over 60 characters long, and if it does, then here are three resources to create shorter links for the text-only version:

1. ProlinkZ

2. TinyURL


About using a list host to distribute:

If you are using a list host to distribute your email, look at the source code of the HTML messages you are sending out via your list host (or ask a techie to do it). This has to be the code of a message in your inbox, not what it looks like before you click send.

What does a link look like when you ask your list host to track the link?

If it looks like this:
(without wrapping)

You have no idea what everything up to the second http:// is, then you are probably going to see this problem rear its ugly head again.

If your link looks like this:

Also, you have no idea how this links to your page, then you are probably in good shape; although this link is on the long side ofwhat our testing showed worked reliably.

This second link is able to track clicks by taking readers to the list host’s server, pulling your actual link out of a database, and directing the readers to your page. That is what the three systems describe above do.

Tech Notes (why Hotmail link length varies):

Is it a bug if you can not duplicate it? In this case, yes.

Hotmail intercepts every link in every message. When a reader clicks on a link in a message, Hotmail opens a new window and uses a script to pull the link that has been clicked on out of the message that is in their database. If you hold your mouse over a link within Hotmail, you get an idea of how very long the message ID is. Since each user has a unique message ID for each message, you can not duplicate what a reader is seeing unless you sign in from his or her account. That is a lot to ask of even the most loyal reader.

We believe Hotmail may have reset the starting ID number to a lower number (thus fewer digits or characters), which means that links, even longer ones, will work for now. As the number of messages grows in their system grows, and the message ID numbers increase, we will see this problem again.

See Also:

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