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Mar 25, 2004
How To

Tips on AOL Email Delivery Challenges: Blocked Sites & Dynamic Blocking Increase False Positives

SUMMARY: Tips on AOL Email Delivery Challenges: Blocked Sites & Dynamic Blocking Increase False Positives

Last week AOL said that for the first time in ages, their spam rate went down. Which, unfortunately, means the rate of false positives (permission email stopped by mistake) almost certainly went up. This AOL delivery update includes:

How AOL's new site blocking activities may affect you
Info on the increase of dynamic blocking
More details on the enhanced whitelist
Quick actions - 9 steps to improve delivery

Also includes useful links to more resources:
By Contributing Editor Janet Roberts

Did you know AOL now blocks member access to sites they suspect are run by major spammers?

AOL's new policy is one of several initiatives, including the Dynamic Blocking and Version 9.0's filters used by up to 75% of total members, launched to combat spam.

While what AOL is doing may be good for its users (the company claimed last week its spam numbers went down for a change), it may make permission mailers work even harder.

With these changes, now is the time to check in with your email broadcasting team to see where you stand on your AOL performance. You need to receive (and make the time to review) regular reports segmenting open and click rate statistics by ISP.

Here's more info on coping with AOL changes...

How AOL Spammer Site Blocking May Affect You

The good news is, it almost certainly won't affect you in the short term (unless you are a truly massive spammer of course.)

AOL moved to block suspected spammers' sites to protect members from fraud, AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham told us. They'd already been blocking a variety of sites for some time, including hacker, virus and identity-stealing "phisher" sites, and adult-content sites for kids users. However, blocking suspected spammers' sites is new.

Graham said AOL uses customer spam complaints to decide which sites to block, although he wouldn't specify which sites had been blocked, or how many complaints it takes to get on the AOL "blocklist."

This is frustrating news for permission mailers because the AOL 9.0 version's user design makes it too easy to click the spam notification button when all a user wants to do is delete a message. Many permission mailers have noted their "false complaint" rate (consumers clicking the spam button for mail such as order receipts and double opt-in newsletters) is high as a result.

However, we've been assured by sources both inside and outside the company that AOL is being triply-careful about how sites are chosen to be blocked. The effort is being described as "pinpoint targeted."

That said, other ISPs watch AOL carefully, and may copy their blocking tactics. Some may not be as careful about avoiding false positives. If you run a very aggressive affiliate program, without keeping close checks on the type of lists affiliates are emailing, this site blocking trend may ultimately affect you.

Anyhow, to find out if your site is one of those being blocked, call AOL's Postmaster service (numbers below in the resource list) and/or spotcheck your hotlinks while using an AOL account on a regular basis.

AOL Increases Dynamic Blocking

We're also told AOL has stepped up its use of dynamic (temporary) blocking to deny access to mailers who generate too many spam complaints or bounced emails. The blocks are longer, too, as long as 12 hours.

Although AOL officials declined to discuss this, too, people who monitor their AOL performance say dynamic blocking kicks in if any or all of the following happen:

-- You generate a high rate of complaints in the first hour after you send, no matter how many messages AOL receives from you.

-- You generate spam complaints at a ratio equal to 2,000 or more spam complaints per 1 million messages received

-- You bounce too many emails (no word on what bounce rate could jeopardize your access).

Even if you don't do any of these things, if you are using a low-cost email service, chances are they are sending your mail from a shared IP address that they use for many other clients. If one of those clients is blocked, then so are your mailings.

Mailers at the most risk are those using email ASP services which do any of the following:

-> Accept clients with opt-out lists
-> Accept clients without asking about the source of their list
-> Allow new clients to join via an online form without going through a human sales rep. (Spammers take advantage of ecommerce automation.)

Only 30% of Mailers Can Qualify for AOL's Enhanced Whitelist

In January, MarketingSherpa broke the news about AOL's "enhanced" whitelist, which allows bulk mailers with crystal-clean records to bypass 9.0's automatic image and link suppression without waiting for the AOL user to figure out how to allow colors and graphics to load and links to activate automatically.

(Read the original story using the link below for basic information and to see how some emailers are working to get into recipients' address books, which is another way to avoid image and link suppression.)

AOL is extremely close-mouthed about the whitelist -- you can get general information from a special Web page, but that's all -- but several emailers who closely track their AOL performance passed along these new details:

1. Only the top 30 percent of emailers can qualify for the enhanced list, meaning the 30 percent of emailers with the fewest spam complaints.

2. Once you qualify, you can get kicked off if you generate too many spam complaints. AOL won't discuss the actual number, but we're told it's a ratio equal to 1,000 spam complaints for every 1 million messages AOL receives from you over 30 days, about 1 complaint per 1,000 emails.

3. That isn't a static 30-day stretch, either, say from March 1 to March 31. It's a rolling 30-day record, so the number changes every day.

4. If you get kicked off the enhanced list, you have to wait 30 days before you can get back on. AOL won't tell you you've been dumped; you'll have to guess from your own tracking.

5. Bounce rates don't figure into the equation yet, but our sources say it's coming. That means you'll also have to have a very low bounce rate, as well as few spam complaints, in order to qualify.

Quick Basics: 9 Actions to Improve Your AOL Delivery

Here's some advice from Dave Lewis, VP Delivery Services & ISP Relations for Digital Impact, a founding member of the Email Processing Industry Alliance:

1. Build several attempts to get subscribers to add you to their address books into your registration process. This automatically eliminates AOL the default image and link suppression and gets you past gateway filters.

2. Use the same email address and IP address to send messages every time, instead of ones that change each time.

3. Ask AOL to add your email administrator to a "Feedback loop" so he or she will be emailed every time an AOL user reports you as a spammer. You should take the name off your list immediately. In addition, you may want to start tracking what types of messages tend to generate the complaints.

4. Make your permission process clear and conspicuous so that subscribers know exactly who and what they're signing up for.

5. Send out a confirmation immediately after the subscriber signs up so that subscribers remember why you're in the in-box.

6. Exercise discipline: Limit mailings and make them as relevant as possible.

7. If you use email appending services, contact anyone you bring into your house list through that method right away to engage their attention and reduce the chance for a spam complaint.

8. Find out why someone isn't responding to your emails. Try a different messaging strategy, review where the address came from, such as in-house registration or a rented list. If you can't get someone to reengage with you, unsub the name immediately.

9. Get rid of bad addresses right away. Big ISPs soon won't tolerate even the old standards of allowing three to five hard bounces per address.

Useful links related to this article:

AOL Postmaster telephone contacts:
703-265-4670 or 888-212-5537 (toll-free in the U.S.)
Be patient, and you'll get help eventually, but you might get it faster on the toll line rather than the toll-free service. We've heard of average waits of up to 25 minutes.

Info on setting up a spam feedback loop (highly recommended)

AOL Enhanced Whitelist Information:

AOL Standard Whitelist Information:

Email Processing Industry Alliance:

EmailSherpa story:
AOL Sources Confirm Existence of New Enhanced White List
See Also:

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