Whenever I send e-mail to Hotmail subscribers, they never receive it and it
never bounces back. I’m sending mail from my domain-based e-mail address
through my Netscape 7.2 e-mail client. In other words, it’s not a Netscape
account. Netscape is just the e-mail client, and I can receive and send other
mail perfectly. I only have problems with Hotmail. Everyone else seems to
receive my mail this way. This is driving me crazy.
I’m one of the admins for a fairly large mailing list and we face this type
of problem frequently. Last week it was HotMail subscribers, but only those
that were signed up for the “digest” version of our mailing list. A couple of
months ago it was AOL users, but only some, and not always the same ones.
Our email infrastructure has become frighteningly fragile.
And it’s all because of spam.
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If the email doesn’t make it through, and there’s no bounce message
returned, it’s likely that it was filtered as spam.
Now I can hear you screaming already: “But it wasn’t spam!!!”
I know, I know. That’s the terribly frustrating part.
The problem is that email recipients are also screaming. They’re screaming
“How do I stop all this spam?” And ISPs and email providers such as HotMail,
AOL and others, are scrambling to try and put into place solutions that halt,
or at least seriously reduce the number of spam messages that get delivered to
The problem is that they sometimes go overboard, and mark legitimate email
be delivered, or guarantee that you’ll find if it was or not.”
Now, “marking” it as spam is annoying enough, but if that’s all they did,
that’d actual be less of a problem, since we’d still be able to look at it and
decide what to do with it. Unfortunately, they’ve also taken to simply blocking
and discarding much of what they see as spam.
And naturally, “what they see as spam” is a moving target. In attempts to
improve the spam detection rate or react to the latest wave of actual spam,
most folks are continually updating and upgrading the algorithms they use to
tell spam from legitimate mail.
In the HotMail example I mentioned I pointed out that only mailing list
subscribers that were getting the “digest” version of our mailing list were
affected – folks getting the mailing list content in individual messages
continued to receive them without problem. HotMail had decided that something
about our digests looked like spam, and began discarding them. I assume they
got complaints, because about a week later, they suddenly began to be delivered
For a while AOL used a technique called “rate limiting” – meaning that it
would only accept so much mail in a certain amount of time from a particular
sender. If you were trying to send more than that, you were likely a spammer,
and the excess was discarded. What they failed to take into account were
legitimate mailing list servers hosting multiple mailing lists that were
attempting to send legitimate email across several mailing lists to a lot of
AOL customers that had explicitly subscribed and requested it. After a while
and many complaints, this technique also seems to have abated.
It sucks. Email providers are attempting to provide a valuable and
legitimate service to their customers by blocking spam. And yet in their
attempts to do so, they’re often over-aggressively blocking legitimate mail,
with no real recourse for legitimate senders.
So what can you do?
Well, I’ll start by saying that there’s no silver bullet. There’s simply no
way to guarantee that your email will be delivered, or guarantee that you’ll
find if it was or not. That’s simply the nature of the world right now.
But there are things you can do to stack the deck in your favor.
Don’t spam. I know, I know, you don’t. Even so, don’t do it. The key word is
“unsolicited”. Don’t send people email that they didn’t ask for, and don’t put
people on mailing lists without requiring double opt in. Anything less can get
you legitimately branded as a spammer.
Do everything you can to avoid looking like spam. My previous article
Why is my
mail to this person not getting through? includes a short list of many
common things that can make your email start to look like spam.
Check to see if your mail server has been blacklisted (not your PC, but the
server that sends your mail – usually your ISP or your email service provider).
Unfortunately this may, or may not, actually help you. There are so many
different blacklists maintained by several entities, it’s difficult to know
which ones actually matter, and which ones might be responsible for your
delivery problems. Even worse, getting off of blacklists can be extremely
difficult, but at least it might give you some clues as to what might be
happening. I have known people to change mail servers rather than deal with
trying to get off of blacklists. ISIPP (Institute for Spam and Internet Public
Policy) has How
Can I Find Out If My Email Is Being Blocked? which includes links to
serveral blacklist checking services.
Check with the postmasters at the sites you’re having trouble with. AOL has
http://postmaster.aol.com/, Hotmail has http://postmaster.hotmail.com/, and most other large ISPs or EMail
Service providers will have contact addresses that will at least claim to aid
you in getting your legitimate email through. Quite often they’ll have you jump
through various hoops to do so – but remember, they’re also counting on the
fact that spammers are unable or unwilling to jump through those hoops.
If it applies, consider using one of the accreditation services, or other
email registries. While there’s no general agreement yet on a single solution,
publishing “SPF” records for your mailer, using “DomainKeys”, or signing up for
accreditation by a service such as SuretyMail can help get your
legitimate email delivered, particularly if you are a large sender. If you use
a third party email or mailing list service provider, you might investigate
which of these techniques they employ.
Educate your users. One of the most frustrating problems mailing list owners
suffer from is subscribers using the “This is Spam” button to delete or
unsubscribe from legitimate email that they actually requested (and often
confirmed via a “double opt in” email). If they requested it, of course, it’s
not spam, and reporting it as such damages everyone.
As you can see, there aren’t many concrete steps that can guarantee your
email delivery. Without a bounce message telling you why, it becomes a guessing
game. The best steps to take when you encounter a problem are to simply make
sure that you’re being a good email citizen, track down what clues you can, and
possibly follow up with the ISP with which you’re having delivery issues.