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Poor delivery at Gmail but no where else

I’ve mentioned before that I can often tell what ISP is making filter changes by what my calls are about. The last few weeks it’s been Gmail where folks are struggling to get to the inbox. One of the things most clients and potential clients have mentioned is that they’re not having any problems at the other major ISPs.

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Gmail’s filters are probably the most extensive and complex of all the major webmail providers. Their ability to process data and pull signal out of noise, even when it is all noise, is unmatched in the space. But, still, I wasn’t sure why so many companies were struggling just with Gmail.

I’ve been noodling around with this. Could it be that Gmail is doing something very different than other companies? Are they assigning reputation in ways that are different? Do we need to change our strategies to deal with Gmail? Are there different things we should be telling folks?

Then, I realized the big difference between Gmail and the other webmail providers is their FBL. With the other major webmail providers senders can clean their lists just by removing anyone who hits the “this is spam” button. This lets senders be sloppy with acquiring email addresses without too many consequences. Gmail, however, only tells about complaints, they don’t tell you who is making them. Gmail puts the onus on senders to figure out how to send mail to people who want it.

It also means that Gmail is a more realistic view into what subscribers think about a mail stream. It’s easy to forget that everyone who hits this-is-spam actually gave the sender an email address in the first place. The fact that senders can’t just remove them from the mailing program, means the poor reputation builds up over time. Eventually, the number of complaints is going to go over whatever the appropriate threshold level is, and there’s no easy way to reduce it.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I do know that bad reputations at Gmail take some significant work to repair. There’s no short cut, senders have to get rid of subscribers who don’t like the mail. Identifying those subscribers can be a challenge. We’ve had good luck with some clients, but for others the fixes are a significant challenge and tough for their business model to absorb. The good news is that the pain can be short lived and we’ve been able to ramp mail back up eventually.

Overall, Gmail delivery is harder than a lot of other places. Some of that is because senders use FBLs as a crutch to avoid having effective data hygiene on their signups. That works for those ISPs that send FBL messages, but isn’t so effective at Gmail. Maybe there’s some specific hygiene to do just on Gmail addresses. Working on a better solution than just aggressive hygiene and friction during signup.

5 comments

  1. John Levine says

    Gmail says they’re implementing the upcoming one click unsubscribe RFC. If you have a one-click header in your mail, a Gmail user reports it as spam, and agrees to report and unsub at the same time, you get the unsub. This should provide roughly the same practical benefit for ESPs as FBLs, but without needing prearrangement. It also avoids the privacy issue of FBLs since the ESP just gets its own unsub link, not the whole message.

  2. laura says

    Has that draft gotten any better? Last I saw it was a complicated recommendation.

  3. John Levine says

    Read all about it here:
    https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/draft-levine-herkula-oneclick/
    We simplified it somewhat, client does a POST to the same URL to which a normal unsub would do a GET, with a single fixed POST argument List-Unsubscribe=One-Click. The URL has to have everything coded into it to identify the list and subscriber, which is pretty typical. It’s intended to be easy to implement, GET and POST go the same place but POST skips the confirmation page, ESPs don’t seem to have any problem with it, and at least Gmail and AOL are implementing the receiver side.

    1. laura says

      Thanks! Sounds like a much cleaner and easier to implement process. I’ll take a look at the draft, definitely.

      Also… AOL? List-Unsub functionality? Cool.

  4. Duncan McEntyre says

    Hi Laura, this is interesting. Does this affect Gmail senders too? Or just recipients with Gmail domains?

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