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Top Five Tips for Dealing with Blacklists

Some self-styled "email marketing insider" recently posted a "Three Tips for Dealing with Blacklist Issues" articl0065 and wow, it turned out to be simplistic, useless advice.  Let's pretend it never happened, let's pretend we got that five minutes of our life back, and let's try again.

First, here's what you need to know about blacklists.

There are more than 200 blacklists out there in the world, and probably fewer than a dozen of them are actively used as spam filters at any large ISP or webmail provider. If you plug your IP address into a web form and go a reply that said "OH NOES! YOU'RE ON A BLACKLIST!" that does NOT mean you have a deliverability issue. Allow me to repeat: OMG YOU'RE LISTED ON A BLACKLIST DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE A PROBLEM DELIVERING MAIL.

Anybody can create a blacklist! You, me, some guy with his cat in his basement, a Linux user in Belgium, Huey Callison, anyone. Just because a blacklist exists does not mean it is widely used. You can hang a disco ball in your basement, but that doesn't make it Studio 54.

The only way a blacklist can cause your mail to get blocked at an ISP is if that ISP purposely chooses to subscribe to that blacklist. That means that a listing on Joe's blacklist, the one where he lists everybody who sends emails with the letter J in them, is not going to get your mail blocked at Yahoo.

Here are some real world examples. The various Spamhaus (SBL, XBL, PBL, etc.) blacklists are probably the most widely used blacklists in the world. If you're blacklisted on Spamhaus, you're going to have trouble delivering mail to Yahoo, Comcast, RoadRunner and a bunch of other ISPs. If you're listed on Spamcop or UCEPROTECT, the number of big sites that block your mail may be few, but lots of smaller sites use these lists to decide which mail to accept and which mail to reject. Getting listed on Spamcop or UCEPROTECT is something of an automated process; it is typically an accurate indicator that somebody sending mail from that IP address is sending mail to spamtrap addresses.

On the other end of the spectrum, a blacklist like Spam Cannibal or FIVETEN is likely to broadly list anything they don't like. Meaning, if somebody else on your network did something bad, they could and probably are listing the entire network. FIVETEN has a criteria wherein they blacklist entire ESPs who don't require confirmed opt-in/double opt-in. Sounds like a neat idea for a spam filter….unless you want to receive your shipping notification or flight status notification. All of that mail comes from ESPs and none of it is confirmed opt-in. Which is one of the reasons why you will never find the FIVETEN blacklist used by a major ISP. (Not that FIVETEN is inherently evil; to each their own, and email administrators have the right to use whatever spam filters they want. I mean only that in a typical production email receiving environment at a top tier ISP, users would scream bloody murder if this type of blacklist were used as a spam filter.)

If you think you have a blacklist issue, here's what you should (and shouldn't) do.
  1. Don't panic. Calm and rational wins the race.
  2. Check your bounces for reference to the blacklist. If you can't find any references to that blacklist in your bounces, forget about it and get on with your life. Read what I wrote above about how just because a blacklist exists, doesn't mean it's able to block your mail. Even if your IP address is listed.
  3. Don't call the blacklist on the phone. Don't call your ISP or ESP and tell them to get the blacklist on the phone. Seriously, it doesn't work that way, and nobody that works for a blacklist cares about your business model. There is no, "if they could just understand how this impacts my business." Blacklist operators do what they're doing to stop spam, not make friends. And they're jaded from ignorant and/or bellicose listees driving them nuts. Be better than that. I can't say this enough times. Nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.
  4. Figure out what you did to upset them and fix it. If it's UCEPROTECT or Spamcop, you're hitting spamtrap addresses. What list did you mail on the day the listing started? That list may be dirty. It might be time to dump it, or reconfirm it. If it's a Spamhaus SBL listing, and it's because of a spamtrap hit, get ready to reconfirm your entire database. And too bad if you don't like it, that's the way it goes.
  5. Request removal  from the blacklist AFTER you've fixed your problem. After you've shelved the bad list, after you've reconfirmed the questionable database. Be mindful that many blacklists work in a way where listings expire automatically after a given amount of time.
Keep in mind that whitelisting does not prevent blacklisting. You could get Sender Score Certified, you could pay to be able to send Goodmail Certified Email, but you later send spam, buy a list, or send mail to a bunch of spamtraps, you are likely to end up blacklisted. No blacklist checks some magic list of whitelisted IP addresses and says "oh, we see all this spam from this IP address, but it's on a whitelist, so we won't blacklist it." (A very small number of blacklists occasionally make exemptions for technical issues, but that's not going to be something you qualify for.) And if you do bad things, you're similarly likely to get kicked off of the whitelist or certification program you're enrolled in.

And finally, if you're going to sue a blacklist, just go do it already and don't even tell us about it. Don't waste time commenting on the blogs, and don't bother sending angry hate mail to the maintainer of the blacklist. People that are going to sue, sue. People that aren't really going to sue, they just uselessly and lamely send hate mail and complain. It's useless noise. The quickest way to lose friends and alienate people who run blacklists is to threaten and bluster. It's all crap, and the blacklist operator knows it. You're not going to get delisted on the basis of your sheer force of personality. Or lack thereof, as the case may be.

(That Neko Case album? Really good, by the way.)


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.

  1. Sender Score Certified will also remove you from their whitelist if they detect that your IP is listed on one of the major blacklists.

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