98: You Shall Not Pass: Google’s New Spam Guidelines and What it Means for Email Marketers

In October, Google announced new guidelines that went unheard by many email marketers. They released a blog post as well. Yahoo also followed suit

There’s a lot of misguided commentary about the specifics of it, so today we’re going to break down some of the most important changes taking effect and why you should care. 

Main Takeaway: Google and Yahoo’s recent guidelines largely reaffirm established best practices in email marketing. However, a key new detail is the public disclosure of a 0.3% spam complaint rate threshold. While exceeding this rate in a single instance won’t immediately land you in the spam folder or get you blocked, it’s a clear signal of stricter enforcement ahead. Maintaining a consistently low complaint rate is crucial, as repeatedly crossing the 0.3% mark will now lead to more severe consequences than before. 

NOTE: This episode is based on my personal knowledge, recent research as well as chatting with top 1% experts. However, I’m not a lawyer and nothing here should be construed as legal advice.

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New Email Sender Guidelines

As of Feb 2024: Failing to follow these new guidelines will potentially result in Gmail limiting sending rates, blocking messages, or marking messages as spam. They haven’t made it clear what result is applied to what guidelines. Lots of folks are claiming that any of these will lead to you being blocked by Google, forever. While that’s possible, it’s not likely.

Another misconception I’ve seen from plenty of folks is that this only applies to BULK senders, people with 5k daily email traffic. This is false. While Google wrote a spectacularly unclear and poorly structured document, it is pretty clear that most of the guidelines apply to ALL SENDERS. So if you misread and told yourself this isn’t a big deal because you don’t send 5k emails to Google users per day, you’re in for a world of pain.

Here’s the TL;DR on the guidelines, they are essentially the same 6 for all senders and bulk senders, except bulk senders have a few extras.

RequirementAll sendersBulk senders
Set up SPF and DKIM authenticationXX
Set up forward and reverse DNS recordsXX
Keep spam rates below 0.3% in PostmasterXX
Follow RFC 5322 standards for formatingXX
Don’t use a from @gmail.com account in your ESPXX
Add ARC headers, List-id: headerXX
Set up DMARC authenticationX
Support one-click unsubscribe, and include unsubscribe linkX
Bulk senders are described as 5k or more emails per day.

We’d need a whole series to cover all of these so we won’t go into each. You probably should’ve already been following the majority of these in the first place. We had a decent episode that covered authentication, SPF, DKIM and DMARC. RFC standards, ARC headers and one click unsub is generally adopted by most legit ESPs.

These guidelines introduce a plethora of technical terms and requirements, often overwhelming even for seasoned marketers. It’s vital to acknowledge the influx of acronyms and technical terms, such as SPF, DKIM, DMARC, and RFC 5322. For those not residing in ‘acronym city,’ these terms can seem daunting.

The key step is to engage with your IT team and your ESP support team to understand and implement these guidelines. Many marketers, while experts in their fields, may not be familiar with the technical intricacies of these new email requirements. The role of IT teams becomes crucial in translating these acronyms into actionable steps.

Interestingly, the guidelines, like RFC 5322, which initially seem complex, are often not as daunting upon closer inspection. They mainly focus on standard email structures, header fields, addressing formats, and character encoding. Fortunately, most standard Email Service Providers (ESPs) manage these aspects, alleviating some concerns for marketers.

However, the introduction of new guidelines still necessitates a deeper dive and internal discussion. It’s not just about understanding the terms but also about how they impact email marketing strategies. For example, the nuances between ‘spam’ and ‘unsubscribe’ rates become crucial in this context.

Key takeaway: The practical takeaway here is the importance of collaboration between marketing and IT teams to effectively navigate these new guidelines. While the acronyms may seem overwhelming, a combined effort can simplify their understanding and implementation. This collaborative approach ensures that marketers remain compliant and effective in their email marketing strategies, even as the landscape evolves.

The Nuances Between ‘Spam’ and ‘Unsubscribe’ Rates

While this may seem obvious for email marketing experts, not every marketer understands the difference between the impact of a recipient hitting unsubscribe vs hitting the spam button.

The distinction between unsubscribing from an email and marking it as spam is a critical aspect of email marketing and user interaction. Unsubscribing is a neutral action. It simply indicates a change in the recipient’s preferences, like no longer finding the content relevant or a shift in interests. Importantly, unsubscribing does not send a negative signal to mailbox providers like Google. It’s a courteous way for recipients to disengage from email lists without impacting the sender’s reputation.

On the other hand, marking an email as spam has significant implications. It is a strong signal to email providers that the content is unsolicited or irrelevant. This action can negatively impact the sender’s reputation, both immediately and in the long term. For the sender, this means careful attention must be paid not only to who is being emailed but also to the content’s relevance and personalization.

The choice between unsubscribing and marking as spam often hinges on the nature of the email. If an email is unsolicited and sent in bulk, it is likely to be marked as spam. In contrast, a personalized email, even if unsolicited, like a targeted recruitment message or a sales outreach, is less likely to be perceived as spam.

Key takeaway: Starting in February, users will have even more power in influencing a marketing or sales team’s email strategy through these actions. This change emphasizes the importance for email marketers to ensure their content is both solicited and relevant. The key takeaway for marketers is the critical need to maintain the quality and relevance of their email content to avoid negative repercussions and to respect the preferences of their audience.

Keep spam rates reported in Postmaster Tools below 0.3%

Let’s focus on one key changes that might be misconstrued or require a bit more digging and explanation: Spam rates in PMT below 0.3%.

The biggest one and the one that’s most talked about is the 0.3% spam report threshold. Most senders don’t need to worry about this. If you have been following best practices for email like expressed opt-in consent and making it easy for people to unsubscribe, you don’t have major spam complaints. 

But not everyone falls in this bucket, and even if you do, you might not get off that easy going forward. This is especially freaking out people that do bulk outbound/cold marketing using email. 

If you’re not already set up using Google Postmaster to monitor your domain and IP reputation and related metrics, do it now.  

This has actually been a common unwritten rule by mailbox providers (MBP) in the past, anything above 0.3% would potentially cause reputation issues. MBP also do plenty of sneaky things like counting the number of inactive accounts that got your email so you can’t dilute the ratio of complaints you get. I think the change here is that it will be more severe now that the threshold is public. 

What’s the definition of spam complaint rates exactly?

There’s actually some misalignment from experts when it comes to the true definition of this metric. 

Based on this Google Postmaster FAQ, the spam rate is

Spam rate = number of spam complaints from Google users / number of active Google user recipient accounts that landed outside of spam/junk

It makes sense that it’s only for active accounts and for emails that landed outside junk because emails in junk can’t be marked as spam again. So if a substantial number of your emails start actually landing in spam, you could see a low spam rate, even though that wouldn’t be positive. 

What does this mean in terms of volume sent to Google accounts?

Let’s break down the impact of 0.3% further:

  • If you send 10,000 emails in 1 day, you need less than 30 spam complaints
  • If you send 5,000 emails in 1 day, you need less than 15 spam complaints
  • If you send 1,000 emails in 1 day, you need less than 3 spam complaints
  • If you send 333 emails in 1 day, you can’t get more than a single spam complaint

So if your newsletter of 10,000 subscribers is going out in Feb next year, how confident are you that you’ll get less than 30 people marking it as spam?

And if you’re sending cold emails to 50 people per day, how confident are you that you won’t get at least 1 spam complaint? (2% spam rate).

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The Future of LinkedIn as a Prospecting Tool

LinkedIn’s future as a prospecting tool is a topic of growing interest and concern. With increasing spam in inboxes, there’s speculation about how LinkedIn might evolve to address this issue. Unlike email providers who actively work to protect their users from unwanted messages, LinkedIn’s revenue model complicates its approach to spam management.

Currently, LinkedIn benefits significantly from tools like Sales Navigator, which are used extensively for cold outreach. Implementing stricter spam controls, such as a threshold for spam rates or a system for users to categorize messages as spam, could potentially reduce this revenue stream. This dilemma puts LinkedIn in a unique position compared to traditional email providers like Gmail, which prioritize user experience over monetization in this aspect.

The potential changes in LinkedIn’s handling of spam and cold outreach messages are a matter of time. Other mailbox providers, including Microsoft and Proofpoint, may already be implementing similar measures behind the scenes. However, LinkedIn’s dependence on revenue from users utilizing its platform for prospecting presents a significant challenge.

Key takeaway: Marketers and sales professionals might want to prepare for potential changes in LinkedIn’s policies regarding messaging and prospecting, at least eventually. As LinkedIn balances user experience with revenue generation, its role as a prospecting tool may undergo significant transformations, affecting strategies for B2B outreach and networking as several sales team sunset email practices in favor of other social channels.

Leveraging Google Postmaster Tools to Monitor Spam

Regardless of the exact definition, for the sake of the new Google guidelines, the number you need to keep an eye on is the one in Google Postmaster Tools. 

We know for sure that Postmaster does not include any other mailbox providers.

Interestingly, it’s unclear if Postmaster includes only @gmail.com accounts or @gmail.com accounts AND Google workspace accounts. I think it’s a fair assumption though that if Workspace data isn’t going to Postmaster yet, it’s probably only a matter of time. So it’s not as easy as segmenting your list by @gmail.com. Sorry. 

If you’re thinking, well my ESP gives me complaint data, I don’t need to monitor Postmaster. First of all you should because Google is basing their new 0.3% limit based on Postmaster data. Secondly, you can’t rely on the complaint reporting in your ESP for this. Google doesn’t send spam complaint data to ESPs. So what you see in your ESPs is spam complaints from inbox providers that share that data through FBL (feedback loops), Google does not share this with ESPs.

The only way to monitor this metric (at least for Google’s sake) is to look at your complaints rates in GPMT over the last 120 days. 

How have you performed recently? If you have a few spikes here and there in the 0.2%-0.4% I would bet that you’re probably okay. Google is likely to start by penalizing senders who regularly get over 0.3%… the definition of regular is what’s up for debate here. That doesn’t mean that if you’re averaging 0.25% that you are in the clear. You’re probably already seeing deliverability issues if that’s the case.

The rule of thumb I was using before this announcement already was anything over 0.1% isn’t good and needs to be investigated. Anything over 0.3% is critical and can’t happen again.

But yeah the big difference here and what we don’t know for sure and why folks need to take this seriously is that Google might not just be sending you to the spam folder as a penalty, they might simply start blocking you. 

Key takeaway: Marketers should not just focus on Google users but consider the practices and regulations of all mailbox providers. This approach ensures a more comprehensive strategy, aligning with the broader changes across the email ecosystem. The discussion highlights the evolving nature of email marketing and the importance of staying informed and adaptable to maintain effective communication with your audience.

How to Pinpoint Problematic Campaigns with Postmaster Tools

Google Postmaster is an invaluable tool for email marketers aiming to identify and rectify problematic email campaigns. The process of identification involves aligning data from Google Postmaster with your Email Service Provider (ESP). Google Postmaster reports in UTC, so it’s crucial to account for time zone differences when comparing data. A common approach is to check the dates with high spam complaint rates in Postmaster, then cross-reference these with the campaigns sent on those dates in your ESP.

However, this method isn’t foolproof, especially on days when multiple campaigns are sent, including automated emails like welcome or nurture journeys. In such cases, pinpointing the exact campaign responsible for high spam complaints can be challenging. To improve accuracy, a key technique involves utilizing Feedback Loop (FBL). Here’s more info from Google on how to set that up in Postmaster. You simply need to include a new header called ‘Feedback-ID’. This header contains unique identifiers (parameters) for each campaign, allowing Google to track spam complaints related to specific campaigns.

By incorporating this identifier, Google Postmaster can more accurately track spam complaint rates related to specific campaigns. This precision is crucial for email marketers to understand which campaigns are triggering high complaint rates and why. Once identified, the next step is to analyze these campaigns, understanding their content, audience, and timing to determine what might be triggering negative responses.

Key takeaway: Using Google Postmaster in conjunction with FBL provides a more granular view of campaign performance, enabling marketers to make informed decisions and adjustments. This proactive approach is essential for maintaining strong email deliverability and avoiding the pitfalls of high spam complaint rates.

Strategies for Mitigating Spam

Some are predicting that Google will roll back on the 0.3% as it gets feedback from customers and makes it a bit less stringent. I’m not willing to bet on this. If you’re hitting over 0.3% in several scenarios, you need to rethink how you do email. 

First of all though, sometimes there isn’t anything you can do to prevent complaints. 

  • People forget they subscribed to your emails, especially when you take long breaks from sending emails
  • People are impatient and if they can quickly and easily locate your unsubscribe link, they hit spam… if you don’t have a link at all well, shame on you
  • People might not be interested in your content anymore or it’s not the frequency or content they expected, even if they’ve opted in
  • Sometimes people are just having a bad day and are feeling trigger happy or annoyed or just generally bitter
  • People can mark things as spam accidentally
  • Some people even use spam as a way to delete mail

So let’s talk about a couple strategies you could start working on now to get ahead of this.

  • The most obvious is to only send mail to people who asked to receive it
  • Enable double opt-in ASAP
  • Use an email verification tool
  • Purge inactive subscribers as well as emails you haven’t emailed in a while
  • Make unsubscribe as easy and obvious as possible to deter spam complaints 
  • Rethink whether all your transactional messages without unsubscribe links are REALLY transactional and necessary
  • Multi subdomain strategy. If you’re sending all of your marketing and sales emails from the same domain, stop doing this right now. You want to create a variety of subdomains and use them for different purposes. So if you run into trouble with one subdomain, it doesn’t affect your other activities. We talked in detail about this with Kate from Mailgun in episode 83.
  • Think twice about your existing automation emails and any upcoming bulk campaigns… do you NEED to send this? Is it going to be valuable to everyone?
  • Test tools like Zerobounce to highlight users on your list who are frequent spam reporters
  • Make sure the carrot or magnet you offered in exchange for subscribing is connected to the email content you send after… offering a free template and the next email is buy my shit doesn’t work
  • Remind people why they are getting this email and when they signed up, even where they signed up
  • Set expectations before signup, how many emails, what’s the frequency, what’s the expected content? Stick to them.

Key takeaway: Beyond just focusing on the technical aspect of staying under the 0.3% threshold, it’s about understanding and respecting the preferences of your audience. This involves continuous monitoring, regular list hygiene, using multiple subdomains for different email use cases, and creating content that resonates with your subscribers. In this new era, the focus must be on building and maintaining a quality list rather than just expanding numbers.

Episode Recap

We delve into the new email guidelines announced by Google and Yahoo, emphasizing their significance for email marketers. The most critical aspect of these updates is the newly disclosed spam complaint rate threshold of 0.3%. This rate, while not an immediate trigger for severe penalties, marks a shift towards stricter enforcement. Understanding and adhering to these guidelines is crucial for all email senders, not just bulk senders, contrary to common misconceptions.

These guidelines encompass a range of best practices, many of which should already be familiar to experienced email marketers. For instance, setting up SPF, DKIM authentication, and adhering to format standards are standard procedures. However, two notable changes demand closer attention: the 0.3% spam report threshold and the use of legitimate ‘from’ email addresses.

The 0.3% spam rate is calculated based on Google user complaints versus active Google user accounts receiving emails outside of spam. It’s a critical metric, especially given that Google’s Postmaster Tools is the primary source for monitoring this rate. Understanding and keeping this rate below the threshold is essential for maintaining a good reputation with Google.

Monitoring spam rates through Google Postmaster Tools is non-negotiable, as Google doesn’t share this data with Email Service Providers (ESPs). It’s vital to keep an eye on your domain’s reputation, ensuring it stays below the 0.3% mark. Regularly exceeding this limit might lead to harsher penalties, potentially including being blocked.

To mitigate spam complaints, several strategies can be employed. These include ensuring double opt-in for subscriptions, using email verification tools, cleaning inactive subscribers, making the unsubscribe process straightforward, and reassessing the necessity of each email sent. Additionally, segmenting your email activities across different subdomains can isolate potential issues and prevent them from affecting your entire email program.

In conclusion, these new guidelines from Google and Yahoo are not just a reiteration of best practices but a signal towards stricter enforcement and the need for greater vigilance in email marketing strategies. Understanding and adhering to these guidelines, especially the crucial 0.3% spam complaint threshold, is essential for maintaining a good sender reputation and avoiding penalties. Employing proactive strategies and monitoring tools will be key to navigating these changes successfully.

Don’t miss out—listen to the episode and arm yourself with the insights to stay ahead 🎧👇


Intro music by Wowa via Unminus
Cover art created with Midjourney

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