A number of Web sites hit with falling search rankings in April had several things in common. These sites publish original articles, frequently in the 500+ word range, which is supposed to be a quality benchmark in the way Google values content. They are authored by writers generally considered to be among the leading experts in their field. And all of these Web sites publish email newsletters. I’m part of this group and while it sounds arrogant for me to consider myself an expert, there are a handful of topics I know more about than most other people.
When my traffic at JakeLudington.com suddenly dropped in early April, I thought I’d made some kind of change that was resulting in a technology failure. I was wrong. Everything appeared to load as it should. So why the sudden drop? I called around to a handful of friends and discovered I was not alone. Early April was the second round of Panda algorithm changes. With some additional digging, I got a tip from someone at Google who indicated Google was penalizing JakeLudington.com with some new measurements that penalize email behaviors for domains. In talking with a number of other online publishers who were also hit with a stiff penalty, including LockerGnome, it appears that one common theme is that we all have email newsletters.
At first I simply didn’t want to believe email publishing was my problem. I require confirmed subscriptions. You can’t receive a single issue of my newsletter without clicking a link in the confirmation email saying you really want a subscription. This has been true since the newsletter launched as part of LockerGnome back in January 2001. I’ve always been adamant that people who don’t want to be on my list shouldn’t be and make it just as easy to unsubscribe. I currently use Aweber to send emails, which makes it easy to identify the number of people who mark your email as spam for any given mailing and automatically eliminate them. How could I get penalized for seemingly doing what was right?
Here’s the rub: I wasn’t doing everything right. If you publish an email newsletter or engage in email marketing, you probably aren’t either. One of the reasons I love Aweber for email publishing is the data it makes easily available. You can see whether people open your newsletter. You can see whether people click on anything. And with some fancy sorting of the data using Aweber reporting functions, you can very easily see that some percentage of the people who subscribe to your newsletter stopped paying attention a while ago. These inactive subscribers are the ones you need to worry about.
Most email service providers, like Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo! Mail have a scoring system that determines which senders are spam. The “report as spam” button available in most services is one factor in this calculation. The number of people who open an email is another factor in this calculation. And the people who click on things in those emails are yet another component of the calculation. They likely have other factors as well, but those three components are a big piece of your email reputation. The people on your list who are receiving your emails week after week, but don’t open them or never click on anything, are hurting your reputation. This subscription deadwood isn’t making your business any money because an inactive subscriber doesn’t engage with anything. They are also hurting your ability to deliver email to the people who are legitimately interested in receiving your email. When you hit a high enough percentage of subscribers who never open your email, it sends a signal to their email service provider that your publishing activities are suspect.
If some of your subscribers are inactive, you need to purge them from your list of subscribers. If you have 30,000 subscribers and only 10,000 of them ever open and read your emails, you really have 10,000 subscribers and 20,000 people who are dragging your reputation into the dirt. I’ve known this to be true for a while, but I got lazy. It takes time to run reports, see who is reading, and purge those people who aren’t. But not taking that time will cost you money in the form of a damaged email reputation. Now a damaged email reputation is also a damaged search engine reputation, which brings me back to Google.
Gmail tracks email reputation. It’s part of what gives Gmail some of the best spam filtering on the planet. Gmail looks at how much email your domain sends to @gmail.com addresses and assigns a score to your domain based on how engaged those @gmail.com addresses are with your content. When your domain crosses a threshold, you get labelled as suspect. The Gmail scoring system used to apply only to your reputation within Gmail. Google is now applying email behavior to search results. If you don’t keep your email list clean, you get slapped with a penalty, as I did.
Addressing an Email Reputation Problem
There’s really only one way to solve an email reputation problem. You have to make an effort to clean up your list. Here again I was thankful for the awesome reporting built into Aweber. I was able to quickly track down which subscribers were receiving my emails via @gmail.com addresses but not opening the email. There are two ways to deal with these subscribers. You can segment your list and send these inactive subscribers a special email telling them you are going to purge them if they don’t take some kind of action. A few of them may respond. My gut tells me this is a waste of time and they will simply disengage again sometime soon. The other thing you can do is simply purge these inactive subscribers, which is exactly what I did. I chose a cutoff date. Anyone who subscribed before that date and hadn’t engaged with the newsletter in the last 90 days was deleted from my subscriber database. I started with @gmail.com addresses, because those were the ones closest to my source of pain. I then expanded my purge to anyone who matched my criteria from any domain. I purged about 13,000 subscribers. I’m now repeating this process at the end of every month.
I know it hurts to see that subscriber count shrink. Subscribers are nothing but a number if they aren’t reading your email or clicking on the links you send. And those numbers are expensive if they cause you to start appearing in the gmail.com spam folder. They are insanely expensive if they cause a drop in Google search results. After my purge, I filled out a detailed reinclusion request, listing the steps I’d taken and what I plan to do to avoid having an email reputation problem in the future. Google responded saying it revoked a manual spam penalty against JakeLudington.com, which further validated my action being the right thing to do.
If you are an email newsletter publisher or email marketer, I highly recommend looking at your subscribers to see who is active. If the inactive ones aren’t costing you money now, they may cost you money in the future. Use the tools available to you in your email hosting provider account to clean your list of these inactive addresses. If your email hosting provider can’t get you the information you need to take action, it’s time to move to a new provider.
While I personally think email reputation is a lousy indicator of the quality of a search result, I also realize I’m stuck playing by Google’s rules. So are you.