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Email is the heart and soul of business communication. Even as tools like Slack and FlowDock seek to take over messaging within businesses, email is the go to messaging platform for interacting with clients, vendors and partners, and it’s been that way for nearly 30 years.
Once you hit the send button, emails go through a few steps before they get into the receivers inbox. At each step a number of tests occur to verify that 1) you are who you say you are; 2) you aren’t sending something malicious, such as a virus; and 3) you aren’t sending spam.
What exactly is spam? The simplest definition is “any email that is sent someone without the consent of the receiver.” Every message, on it’s way to the inbox, goes through a spam filter. The spam filter runs each message through a series of rules which look at the where the email is coming from (the server and the person), what information is in the header of an email (the part which stores information for the computer to read) as well as in the subject and body of the email. Each rule gives a score for the email. Just like in golf, the higher the score the worse the results and when the score gets too high, the message get put into the junk mail folder.
You’re not sending spam though. So why are emails still going to the junk mail folder? Or worse, why aren’t messages getting received at all? According to Return Path’s 2017 Deliverability Benchmark Report, 24% of emails don’t get into the received inbox. Of that, only 8% gets put into the junk mail folder, leaving 16% that never goes anywhere. So why aren’t your customers, vendors and partners receiving your emails?
1. The SPF record is setup wrong
SPF, or the “Sender Policy Framework”, is a record attached to domain names that lists out who can send email for that domain. A basic SPF record looks like the following:
v=spf1 a mx -all
This SPF says that any
MX record for the domain may send email.
Most email hosts will have you simply include their SPF record. As an example, here’s an SPF record for using Office 365:
v=spf1 include:spf.protection.outlook.com -all
This record includes the SPF record from
spf.protection.outlook.com which lists all of Office365’s email servers.
-all, called Hard Fail, part of the record says that no other server can send email for the domain. Commonly, email providers use
~all, or Soft Fail. Most email servers treat Soft Fail the same as if there was no SPF record at all, meaning that anyone can pretend to be you when sending email. For that reason, the spam score that we talked about above, get’s raised a little bit when filters see Soft Fail.
2. You don’t have DKIM setup
DKIM, or “DomainKeys Identified Mail” is fairly new in the grand scheme of email, created in 2004, DKIM merged “enhanced DomainKeys” from Yahoo and “Identified Internet Mail” from Cisco. Like SPF, DKIM is designed to detect email spoofing. It does this by digitally signing emails. The sending email server uses a private key to lock your email message with the digital signature. When the email arrives at the recipient email server, the server will check the signature using a public key stored as a record on the sender’s domain. For example, the DKIM public key for my personal email, davejlong.com, is stored at
google._domainkey.davejlong.com and looks like the following:
v=DKIM1; k=rsa; p=MIIBIjANBgkqhkiG9w0BAQEFAAOCAQ8AMIIBCgKCAQEAjIuXWVCwOHT//Mpzslj4npXC8LuQIN90VyZconTOphCGJVbPQqeVy1yypbMKL1yjwNp3AKWnApab9WYYJguLKEDjVg/6qblBahGWnb+nH4LchoOgJpmjN2uigDh/mq72KL5dX4nDcmRYVeKYVZeyr7NUGSwmoFH2wGXGrBwrW+szKJS/inEOKIJIgl04E1dH
DKIM is still relatively new for email security and doesn’t have a high effect on the spam score of a message, but it’s still a factor that most mail providers leave out when they setup email for customers.
3. Your sending plain text
The email gateway checks into things like DKIM and SPF as well as a number of other measures. If your email gets past that, the spam filter looks at the content (both what the reader sees and what the computer sees) of the email. One of the big red flags for email is if it’s plain text. Most email clients use HTML formatting for emails which allows you to do things like bold your text and insert images into emails. Some older email clients or web applications that send email for you use plain text emails. When you send an email as plain text, spam filters will instantly raise your spam score for that email, possibly putting you over the edge and into spam territory.
There are plenty of other ways to ensure that recipients of your emails receive them, but these are 3 of the biggest causes that we see emails not getting into your customers inboxes.
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