Troubleshooting AOL Deliverability Issues

Update: As of May, 2018, this information is now out of date, due to the consolidation of the AOL and Yahoo webmail platforms under their new "Oath" umbrella. Click here for my thoughts on how to troubleshoot AOL deliverability issues at this time

A client asked me the other day, how do I go about troubleshooting AOL deliverability issues? Since AOL is an ISP where (for the most part) it's easy to solve deliverability issues, I thought I would share some general guidance here, to make it easy for people to get started.

If you're having trouble delivering mail to AOL, it tends to be one of these three things.
  1. Is your IP address whitelisted with AOL? Most ESPs manage this process for you, and most of them have probably submitted all, or big groups of their IP addresses, to AOL for whitelisting already. But, stuff happens. AOL doesn't tell you if your IP address falls off of their whitelist. Ask your ESP to check this for you. Ask them to resubmit your IP address to the AOL whitelist. If it is already whitelisted, the attempt will fail with a simple "this address is already whitelisted" error, and then you'll know. If you send on your own, not using an ESP, here's where you can find more information about the AOL whitelist.
  2. Are you set up with AOL's Feedback Loop? A feedback loop (FBL) is what allows you to receive a complaint back from a subscriber, when they click the "this is spam" or "junk" button inside of a webmail's user interface. AOL and many other ISPs over FBLs. They indirectly (but importantly) help with your deliverability by allowing you to cease mailing people who complain; preventing repeat complaints. More importantly, if you have an excess of spam complaints, they help you tie complaint numbers back to specific segments or processes that you may need to refine or retire if you want to stay in AOL's good graces (and in the inbox). Like with whitelisting, ESPs tend to manage this process for you. Ask your ESP to help you confirm that your AOL FBL is set up properly and working. Check your ESP's user interface to scan for unsubscribes or complaints that would have been delivered back to you via that FBL. And if you send on your own, not using an ESP, learn more about and sign up for the AOL FBL here.

    (An important note for ESP users: Do not sign up for the AOL FBL yourself unless your ESP has given you permission to do so. Your FBL signup attempt can interfere with the ESP's own attempt to manage this process for you. Bad things can happen, like you could accidentally redirect spam complaints to somebody at your company, who won't know what to do with them. Complaining subscribers will not get unsubscribed, and your deliverability will suffer.)
  3. Is your spam complaint rate just too darn high? I don't exactly know what constitutes "too high a complaint rate" in 2015. AOL used to publish a threshold of .1% as an allowed complaint rate. Later it was .3%. A quick Google search isn't finding me any updated numbers. Regardless, the AOL bounce error message would probably give you some insight to whether or not excessive complaints are at issue. A common block is "554 RLY:B1" which does indeed indicate that your mail is generating too high a complaint rate as measure by AOL. How do you fix that? Try to tie complaints back to specific segments or processes. If one generates more complaints than others, that may be the culprit. The devil can be in the details, so it might be wise to engage a deliverability consultant for assistance. (AOL does publish some fairly good-but-high-level sender best practice guidelines as well.)
How do I know if I have a good sending reputation at AOL? Here's a link to AOL's IP reputation lookup form. Plug in your sending IP address and their system will tell you its opinion of the mail being sent from that IP address.

Do other ISPs have reputation lookup tools, feedback loops, and postmaster websites? My friend Laura Atkins over at Word to the Wise has put together an excellent matrix listing all of the different ISP resource details and links that she is aware of. This is well worth bookmarking.

Do you have additional insight to share with regard to troubleshooting AOL deliverability issues? Please share in comments.

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