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AOL users falsely clicking "Spam" on your newsletter,
..could destroy your ability to email *any* AOL user

 8:32 pm on Nov 28, 2007 (gmt 0)

Let me share some things I've just learned.

* AOL users can tag your message as spam. When AOL users click the "Spam" button on an email, your server is tagged as a possible spammer.

* If AOL decides you are a spammer, then they'll block *all* mail from your server to AOL. You won't be able to reply to any AOL customer's email -- at least not from the server you'd been using.

* If you're on shared hosting this is particularly ominous. If your AOL subscribers tag your newsletter as spam and cause your server to be blocked, then not only will you be unable to send any messages to AOL users, but all the other webhost customers on your server will be blocked from sending to AOL, too. Likewise, if some other webhost customer on your server gets your server blocked, then you won't be able to send messages to AOL, even if you never sent out a newsletter to AOL users yourself.

* AOL users might click the Spam button either by accident, or because they forgot that they signed up for your newsletter.

* The current threshold is a 0.5% report rate. That is, if you send out a newsletter, and more than 0.5% of AOL users you sent it to clicked Spam, then you have a problem. If you have had your server whitelisted [postmaster.aol.com], then the acceptable percentage may go as high as 0.9%.

* I got those figures today from the rep I talked to at AOL's Postmaster Helpdesk. I won't list the number here because it's a bad practice to post someone else's number (it could change), so to get it search for "AOL postmaster" to get to their site.

* In addition to the 0.5-0.9% complaint rate, if more than 10% of the messages you send to AOL users bounce, AOL may consider you to be a spammer. Make sure your software automatically removes users from the list after mailings to them bounce X times.

* You can sign up for the AOL feedback loop [postmaster.aol.com], where AOL will send you the messages from the users who clicked Spam. AOL removes the user's address from the header, but they told me by phone that they don't remove it from anywhere else in the message, so if you've inserted it into a footer for an unsubscribe section, you might be able to get the address so you can remove it manually. Removing only those users who are blindly clicking Spam on the double opt-in newsletter they signed up for could solve your problem. However, even though AOL told me by phone that they don't remove the user's address from anywhere but the header, somehow I'm skeptical.

* To sign up for the AOL feedback loop, you have to enter your server's IP. You can find the IP of your server by typing "host yourdomainname.com" in Unix (or try some Google search to find host IP's). However, unless you have a static IP address, your host might change your server's IP from time to time, and when they do, you'll have to update your AOL feedback loop account. Unfortunately you probably can't get your host to tell you when they change IP's, so this would be difficult to stay on top of. Of course, if you send out newsletters only infrequently (like once a month), then you can check your server's IP before you send out the newsletter.

* If you're using mailing list software provided by your webhost to send out your newsletter, then the host might use their central server to send out the mailing, not the server your site is hosted on. The good news about this is that there's no risk to your own server, the risk is to your host's central server, and they're the ones who will have to convince AOL that they're not really a spammer. (And this is also while they'll shut your account down in a heart beat if you were truly spamming.) My host is Dreamhost, and they send out newsletters from their central server.

* Another issue if the mailing is sent from a central server is that you might not be able to get the spam complaints through AOL's feedback loop. I'm not sure you're able to sign up for an IP address owned by your host, not you. Even if you are, you might not want to: You could be flooded with messages if your host is sending out tons of newsletters for tons of their customers, since you'd be getting the spam complaints for all of those.

* If your server has been blocked and you have a need to send messages to individual AOL users (e.g., a reply to a customer), remember you can use a web-based account like Yahoo, GMail, or Hotmail. The message will be sent from that company's server, not yours.

Hope this helps.



 4:20 pm on Dec 4, 2007 (gmt 0)

Not only are AOL-ers notoriously unfamiliar with how the "real" Internet works, AOL actively works against webmasters. AOL-ers see no difference between clicking the "delete" button and clicking the "report" button, since either button makes the e-mail go away. And AOL, at least from time to time, has "report spam and get a prize!" campaigns, which, to my understanding, actually encourage their users to click the "report" button as frequently as possible in hopes of winning cars, etc.

This is why many forums, newsletters, and other services, even if "double-opt-in", will not accept registration from AOL addresses. The risk simply isn't worth it.



 9:08 pm on Dec 4, 2007 (gmt 0)

Good information MichaelBluejay. I have several AOL-ers subscribed to my newsletter and had to contact AOL to be added to their whitelist.

I have a double-opt-in feature, but like you mentioned -- some users forget that they signed up for your newsletter.


 3:25 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)

I couldn't agree with you more MichealBlueJay. I have just started a newsletter for a client, and because we were late starting (the client didn't have time to write the newsletter), I had 18 months of email addresses collected as newsletter signups from the website.

I put all 3000 email addresses into the newsletter provider's software, with a double opt-in, and then proceeded to enjoy a short holiday in hell thanks to AOL and their overly strict regime.

My newsletter provider is so worried about keeping AOL happy - understandably - that it caused his brain to fall out (not so understandable) and he deleted all the AOL subscribers from my mailing list who had just said YES to the double opt it. The logic was that they would have to receive the double opt in again (I guess that makes it a triple opt-in) and may have something to do with AOL email users not being entirely sure what they want from life. Let alone my newsletter.

Actually in the end the newsletter provider admitted they had over-reacted, but not until I had sent around 10 emails, each one more baffled (and sarcastic) than the last.


 6:26 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)

It happens with community notifications, too. Rather than unsubscribe, doofuses click the "spam" button and report it. Arrghh...


 6:46 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)

Looks like I'll be subscribing to some of my competitors' newsletters through my AOL account ;)


 7:10 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)

We ask our customers to provide a non-AOL email address and have done so for a few years.
You never know if a customer is going to receive your messages or not.

Makes you wonder why anyone would want an AOL address.


 9:28 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)

There is no such thing as "double opt-in", that's spammer speak. You subscribe only once to a newsletter, and you can use validation by email (recommended) or not (may get you in trouble). Don't complain if you let anyone subscribe any addresses without verification. If more than 0.5% AOL subscribers are reporting you, your mailing list is probably not very clean.


 11:00 pm on Dec 13, 2007 (gmt 0)


That is a great idea. I may take it up. Not many of our target market use AOL, so for the trouble they cause, perhaps it is the best way around the problem. Thanks.


 11:55 am on Dec 14, 2007 (gmt 0)

koan: You say there's no such thing as double opt-in and then you describe exactly what the industry has termed double opt-in (validation via email that the address subscribed can be validated, indicating for a _second time_ that the owner of the email in question does in fact want to join a newsletter).

"The industry" came up with the term "double opt-in" to describe a best practice and hence, there is such a thing.

Also, we have a _very_ sizable double opt-in email list that contains many AOL addresses. Because of this, we are whitelisted and subscribed to the feedback loop. In fact, I'm on the distribution list for the feedback loop and I can tell you for a fact that AOL users are either as ill informed as the historical sterotype or perhaps is it due to the "report spam" contests mentioned.

I routinely see emails in the feedback loop that are shipping notifications, order confirmations, etc.

This can sometimes pose a problem because our newletters always cause record sales during the same period (24 hours) as our sending of the newsletter.

I even have several documented cases where users have received the newsletter, reported it as spam yet ordered that same day and then proceeded to report the transactional emails as spam too.


 5:29 pm on Dec 14, 2007 (gmt 0)

I signed up for the feedback loop months ago and never got any confirmation, so I'm not sure it actually works. I just changed IP addresses and make sure every email I send has an unsubscribe link on it, and manually unsubscribe anyone who is too lazy to click that link and would rather threaten me via a reply. So far so good.


 9:45 pm on Dec 14, 2007 (gmt 0)

how is that falsely?


 11:25 pm on Dec 14, 2007 (gmt 0)

I think 'confirmed opt-in' is probably the most correct. However, while 'double opt-in' was initially used by spammers to make their stuff sound legit it has been used so much to refer to a legit sign-up process that the terms have become interchangeable for any practical purposes. In other words...it's not really worth arguing the difference any more.

We have had some problems with AOL users as well. Some simply report the newsletters of some of our clients as spam because they want them to stop coming but don't want the people creating the newsletter to know they don't want it. I.e. maybe they don't want to hurt their feelings or don't want to seem disinterested. The spam button makes it go away without directly admitting to the sender they don't want their stuff. They just don't realize the damage they are doing. I'd rather have my clients feeling hurt!

FYI: the feedback loop definitely works. It has been very useful to us in avoiding any major issues with AOL deliverability.


 4:01 pm on Dec 17, 2007 (gmt 0)

Oh yea, anyone using AOL is, most likely, not net-savvy to be sure. I get some of the dumbest questions from AOL users...I always check their e-mail when I get a stupid one and, 9 times out of 10, they have an AOL e-mail address. I have even considered stopping all AOL users from using my sites as they are just too dumb and I waste too much time on them. AND, they sign up for my forum, AOL puts the required e-mail in their spam and they cannot figure out to go look in the darn spam box and send me e-mails asking why they can't log in, etc. AOL SUCKS! Can't stand them. Instead of making things better for their users, AOL is making the net less usable for them...stay away from AOL is what I tell anyone new, LOL.


 5:18 pm on Dec 17, 2007 (gmt 0)

AOL's policies may seem harsh and archaic, but in some ways they're preferable to most of the ISPs. I'd rather deal with unfail rules I know about than trying to guess what's going on inside a black box. AOL is much more transparent about their email policies than most (Comcast?) and you can never be sure what will be considered spammy.

For anyone who considers email as large part of their online business, I'd recommend at least looking into hiring an ESP. You're not just buying their knowledge, you're often buying their relationships. If they're on a first name basis with several people in the AOL spam department, these decisions become a lot less artitrary.


 1:07 am on Dec 19, 2007 (gmt 0)

As I described in this thread:


We dumped hundreds of AOL users from our newsletter, and forbid them to subscribe.

It's saved us, and our host, a lot of headaches.


 1:57 pm on Dec 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

* AOL users can tag your message as spam. When AOL users click the "Spam" button on an email, your server is tagged as a possible spammer.

...* AOL users might click the Spam button either by accident, or because they forgot that they signed up for your newsletter.

The same is true of Yahoo! mail. I've never used Hotmail but I wouldn't be surprised to find the same is true there also.



 2:04 pm on Dec 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

I had 18 months of email addresses collected as newsletter signups from the website.

I put all 3000 email addresses into the newsletter provider's software, with a double opt-in, and then proceeded to enjoy a short holiday in hell thanks to AOL and their overly strict regime.

I experience my own headaches with AOL users as I've stated elsewhere, but sending an email to "subscribers" up to 18 months after the signup really is a disaster waiting to happen - and not just from AOL users.

A delay of just 18 days will result in some people forgetting they requested a subscription - much less 18 months. Probably the best thing would have been to stop accepting signups until a regular series of newsletters was available.



 2:48 pm on Dec 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

Farmboy. I see your point of view, and I wouldn't do it again, but there are always several sides to a story.

I had banged on about starting a newsletter to my customer for so long, and he had ignored me (whilst still wanting his online business to grow), that when he finally agreed I didn't want to waste all those good people that had indicated they wanted a newsletter in the interim.

It turns out my instincts were correct. He runs an excellent travel business, delivering a niche type of holiday, and people who visit the site are there because they enjoy his particular take on how to spend their leisure time.

Out of the 3000 odd names, so far over a thousand have double opted in and only 24 have said no to the double opt-in. Out of the 24, 7 are AOL who pressed spam rather than just unsubscribe, which according to others in this forum have probably done so because they are either mis-informed, disinterested, or swayed by the promise of a glittering prize if they award a mark of spam to something that probably isn't. In fact it is interesting that every AOL respondee who didn't want the newsletter, clicked on spam.

Out of the 1000+ who have double opted-in, 50+ have AOL addresses.

If I had done the 'sensible' thing, my client's mailing list would now be about 35 people long as I type. So, no - whilst I would think twice about taking this route again (collecting sign-ups before a client agrees to actually write the newsletter), I still believe that AOL email address holders have characteristics or are encouraged (don't care which) that render them, lets say, as undesirable on a mailing list.

Although I was generally p****d off with my newsletter delivery provider, for over-reacting, I now understand they are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to powerful service providers like AOL, and in their panic they did respond stupidly. They made a mistake. At least when they realised what they had done, they fixed it.

You have to look at outcomes. In general the outcome was good for the client. But that does not stop me thinking that AOL users, for reasons already covered here, are less than attractive than others no matter when they sign up.


 6:04 pm on Jan 4, 2008 (gmt 0)

Are there other ISPs which behave like AOL? Yahoo and Hotmail are mentioned above. Are they as strict?


 12:02 pm on Jan 7, 2008 (gmt 0)

Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail are all very agressive about filtering but not in quite the same way as AOL.

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