I need to track clicks and redirects, what should I do?

Over on one of the forums the other day, somebody asked about best practices for redirects and link tracking for marketing email sends. Here's a few of my thoughts.

First, it's important for me to say: avoid the open redirect. If you're using a redirect tool or feature that lets you just specify the full destination URL in its redirect, that's bad news. Why? Because bad guys look for these to exploit. What happens is, when they're used in spam or phishing emails, the domain reputation of the redirect domain goes bad, damaging the domain that was abused, but protecting the bad guy's actual domain. Spammers know this and look for opportunities to exploit this. Read more about this risk here.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's what I would call your best (safest) options for domain choice for link/click tracking:

  1. Your custom click-tracking domain hosted by your email service provider (ESP). Most ESP platforms have a feature that allows you to configure a custom click tracking domain (here's how to do it in Salesforce Pardot, for example). This is the best way all around; it's a custom domain -- preventing you from domain reputation issues based on somebody else's use of the domain -- and you're trusting that your ESP platform will track clicks properly.
  2. If that doesn't work, use a link shortening tool, but with a custom (vanity) domain. Why? Again, so you are not subject to domain reputation issues caused by some other user of that domain. If the only user of that domain is you, nobody else's problems can damage the reputation of that domain name. (Here's how to use a custom domain with Bitly.)
  3. If neither of those options will work, use the default click tracking domain provided by your ESP, if they have one. This is a bit riskier; you're relying on the ESP platform to monitor for reputation issues and ensure that bad guys aren't mis-using their platform. But it's still better than just using some random link shortener or standalone redirect tool.

The risk of using a standalone redirect tool or link shortener, is that their domain names are also being used by a bunch of other people at the same time as you. And some of those people could be doing bad things, which can make the reputation of that redirect domain go bad. And a bad domain reputation in a link in your email message can very much cause deliverability issues.

This has actually happened before -- check out my post from about six months ago, talking about how Bitly's domain was causing blocking or spam folder placement at Gmail.

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