Yes, another journey into the world of email hosting. This time it’s a bit different. Instead of receiving email, today we talk about sending it.
It seems that during my recent launch I became collateral damage in the war against spam. Between a couple of email campaigns and a bunch of license emails, I had sent out a good amount of email; enough to cause me a ton of headaches as certain mail services, actually, mainly one: Gmail, decided to mark a lot of it as spam (if I was lucky) or make them disappear entirely.
The way things were set up, my email campaigns were sent out by Campaign Monitor, my license emails by my server and my regular “interactive” emails via Rackspace’s email service (as described in a previous installment). The ones I had the most problems with were the first two, as they were repetitive messages sent out in volume.
For a while, I’ve had SPF records set up. What are SPF records? In a nutshell, it’s a way for you to specify which mail servers are the “official” servers your email comes from. This is to help identify mail coming from you as opposed to a spammer posing as you. The way you set it up is to create special DNS TXT records listing out the specific servers for your domain.
Apparently, this isn’t enough. Seems like there’s another layer you can implement: DKIM. With this, you have your mail server sign outgoing emails so mail servers at the receiving end can know that emails are definitely from you and definitely not, once again, from a spammer imposter. So, I went ahead and set up OpenDKIM on my server. You can find various guides out there on how to install it on your OS and integrate it with your MTA (I use postfix and hooking the two up was pretty easy). You also have to add a DNS record listing your public key so other mail servers can verify your signatures.
Even after doing that, it still didn’t seem to appease the Gmail gods. I found this page which recommended yet another thing: DMARC. Here, you specify a policy as a guideline to mail servers on how to handle your email. One of the things you can specify is an email address where mail services can send you reports on the emails you send them. And you guessed it, you implement it by creating a DNS record.
Being desperate, I thought I’d do it, hoping that Gmail would send me a report telling me what I’m doing wrong. Soon after, I started receiving DMARC reports from all sorts of mail services (Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, etc.). Over ten days later and guess who still hasn’t sent me one.
I’ve been getting fewer reports about not receiving emails lately but that’s mainly because of decreased volume since launch. It’s still unclear whether Gmail is binning my emails at a high rate or not. Nonetheless, if sending out emails are an important of your business, I recommend doing the above. Even if Gmail seems to be hard to please, other mail services are more appreciative of the gesture.
Note that there is also the option of relaying all my mail through Rackspace. It’s still a possibility but (a) I’m afraid of poisoning the well since my email is already being marked and (b) using a shared relay opens you up to being blacklisted because of someone else’s misdoings. All in all, I feel that some level of redundancy is ok here.
When implementing the above, you can check the headers of an email received at the other end to make sure everything is set up properly. Here’s one from an email sent from my server to my Gmail account:
Authentication-Results: mx.google.com; dkim=pass email@example.com; spf=pass (google.com: domain of firstname.lastname@example.org designates 2001:4801:7824:103:be76:4eff:fe11:5179 as permitted sender) email@example.com; dmarc=pass (p=NONE dis=NONE) header.from=noodlesoft.com
As you can see, it shows that my SPF and DKIM passes. That doesn’t guarantee anything but it helps.
You can also check out Google’s Postmaster tools site. It will give you feedback on various metrics concerning email from your site. To set it up, you have to create a DNS record (see a running theme here?) with text it supplies you so that it can see that you control the domain. After that, it will track your site.
Also, yes, DNS once again: make sure all your regular DNS records are set up properly. Not only do you want an A and PTR record for IPv4, but also a AAAA and PTR record for IPv6 as more mail servers nowadays are checking for that.
Until next time, here’s hoping I don’t have to resort to human sacrifice to get Gmail to accept my messages.