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Are Spam Filters Crippling Ezines?

By Bob McElwain
Posted Saturday, March 29, 2003

The growing use of software to filter incoming email to an ISP has added an unanswerable question: How many subscribers receive your ezine. For several years now, I've ignored subscriber list totals. The data are fuzzy when you look at numbers held, numbers not delivered, and so forth. I track only the number of successful deliveries. However, this number is now much less meaningful.

Many (most?) ISPs have installed email filters to block spam and that other stuff I can't mention for fear of being blocked. If those filters bounced back to the mailing service, the addresses could be eliminated. Most are only trashed into the big black hole of cyberspace. So there's no telling how many don't get through.

Some are bounced back to me personally. Unfortunately, no email address is provided, so I can't remove it from my list. I get a particular hoot out of this, when they've blocked my newsletter, calling it spam. I wonder what they're calling the stuff they send to me.

Moral Irresponsibility In Action

Such software is a great example of irresponsibility in action. And the lack of ethics and morality of which we see far too much. The 'gods' (programmers?) have decreed we're at the mercy of computer algorithms which are primitive at best.

Analyzing the meaning of a statement in English with a computer is still in its infancy, even though many powerful minds have been working at it for many years. Current software assumes related problems have been resolved, which is absurd.

Here's What Has Happened To Me

Beginning in November in 2001, I began to notice a fall off in responses to "STAT News." Both to ads, and comments emailed to me. I didn't pay much attention at first, for things like this fluctuate.

But I did check seriously in December. Definitely down in both areas. During January and February, I was pretty much out of things due to some heavy surgery. I didn't really get back up to speed until March. By then, the downtrend in the response rate over November last year was very noticeable. Certainly in excess of 15% by any measure.

Blocking Software To The Rescue?

By March, it was also clear spam blocking software was the current rage. I believe this accounts for the drop in response I have seen. Here's why.

Email response to the newsletter dropped by the same percentage as ad response. I track ad response accurately with software, so the only place for error in making this statement is in misjudging email response. My answer to that was to check trash and count. The percentages were almost identical, although there's not enough data to be certain.

If only ad response had dropped off, I'd have decided I needed new ads. But when both dropped by the same percentage, I had to charge it off to the spam filters.

An Up Close And Personal Experience

My ISP installed a filtering package along about April of this year. I was "automatically" enrolled. This meant I got to visit the site and look at the blocked mail. Much more time consuming than doing so in my mailing program. Curious, however, I let it run for a time.

Surprise! Over a 9 day period, I found almost 30 messages from acquaintances, friends, peers, visitors, and subscribers blocked. Beyond notifying them that it happened, I was completely unable to say why. My hunch was, and remains, inadequate computing routines. Or inadequate programmers creating them.

When I'd had enough, I turned the filters off. Guess I should be thankful I had that option. Shoot, some folks that mean a lot to me, only write a couple times a year. And I sure don't want to miss these messages.

Another List

I maintain a mailing list of people to whom I send my articles each week. In one mailing, about half a dozen were sent back to me from AOL. Reason: Invalid DNS pointers. Gee. I wonder how visitors are reaching my site.

As mentioned, most of the mail filtered out is simply trashed. So there's no way to get a handle on this problem. I'd willingly delete email addresses, if they were returned to me. But if these packages wanted to play fair, they'd bounce to my mail list server. But being fair is not their objective.


Many have decided to send only a brief message that points to a URL for an HTML version of the ezine. This won't work for all subscribers. Many don't want to move from handling email to jump onto the Web. Page views will demonstrate whether or not this is so.

Another plan is to refer to an autoresponder for a copy of the current issue. I don't see how this helps, for the content mailed will have to get through the same filter your newsletter would have faced directly.

Further, both ideas fail when the filtering catches something in the headers it doesn't like. As with AOL claiming my DNS pointers were flawed. Or a blacklisted IP address. How to beat this is totally beyond me.

A Possible Maybe

I know many don't like attachments, but here's a thought. Send a message which has no content. Just identify the newsletter in the subject field by name. (It has been suggested we use our full name in the From field, but I've been doing this routinely.)

Let the message contain only the URL to your HTML version. And include a .TXT version as an attachment. A click will load it to an editor on most systems. Again, though, if the "obscene" content is in the header, the message won't go through.

My Plan

I see no better alternative than to continue to grow my list and mail to it. I'll simply have to factor in a number for those arbitrarily trashed. If those into this kind of thing come up with a number, my hunch is that it will be about 25%.

When I adjust my email and ad response by 25%, the numbers agree with those in previous years. Not fact, of course. But suggestive.

Whatever this number proves to be, I'll live with it. And seek to be content with the percentage delivered.


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