Are Bad Bots Inflating Your Email Marketing Reports?

Cartoon Robot with yellow backgroundRecently a list owner discovered abnormalities, and inconsistencies, in several of their deliverability reports.

Most list owners owners review their email campaign deliverability stats, compiling them into reports for the sales team,  ( Most likely they never give a second thought about bad bots).  The sales team may rely on these reports to focus on extending the campaigns that have the highest open rates.  Likewise they may reconsider the content and subject line for the lowest performing segments.   The reports are valuable. 

When the numbers in their reports didn’t add up, a customer asked us to investigate.

This is what we found: When their mailings go out, several of the recipients appear to be “robots” or bad bots, that fetch the URL’s that are presented in the email message.  They do this in parallel, using different IP addresses for each link request.  This is happening within a second or two, causing the clickthrough report to show thousands of clicks when it should only be in the low hundreds

This is not a unique problem.  More and more marketers are doubting their email performance stats.  They are finding rapid click metrics and mismatched data between their content management system and the automatic email management tools provided by the ESP.  The reason – Bots, bots are running crazy with email clicks. In fact the new normal is now inflated clickthrough rates that aren’t possible based on the open rates of a particular mailing.

Unfortunately, because of the way of the world, most emails coming into the typical mail server need to be scanned by email security bots: installed programs and scripts that run on top of most email servers.  These bots are created to seek out potential threats such as malware,  viruses, and menaces that can be carried by email and its attachments.

These bots are good for protection against unsafe programs, but bad for the email marketer.

For example, when designed to verify the validity of links in a message, they can artificially inflate email opens and clickthrough rates.   With inflated stats email performance reports will be inaccurate.

Inaccuracy doesn’t stop with performance reports.  Subscriber reports, those that are gleaned from a user opting in or out of a list, will be skewed if it’s a bot clicking on these options.  In this case, to avoid erroneous subscriber reports, simply ask the user to confirm their request for either action with an email.

However, not all inaccuracies are corrected this easily, especially if you have a spam bot working against you.  A spam bot can also scan email for links, not to verify their validity, but instead this bot can be programmed to look for ways to exploit possible weaknesses.  A spam bot can also be designed to grab addresses with the intent to spam them, which can ruin your sending reputation.

One’s email reputation can be ascertained using the various email tools most ESP’s (Email Service Provider) provide to the user.   Tools generate reports that can include email opens, forwards, and bounces.  With this information, over time, a user can identify list member trends, and structure their email campaigns accordingly: For example, send on the day of the week that appears to have the best open rates. 

All this is straight forward as email reports are always reliable and dependable, until the day they are not.

That day for some email marketers happens when there is an unusual spike of opens in the email deliverability reports.  Worse yet, there is no logical explanation for this.  This is an indication that you’re probably a victim of an email click bot and, in this case, a bad bot.

Bad bots such as these, are notorious for creating instant click measurements, where one link can be “opened” hundreds of time is seconds.  They are also responsible for misleading reports, bogus ads, and even cyber-attacks.

Good Robot Cartoon with red heart and smileGood bots do not generate misleading reports, they perform actions like crawl a website for search engine indexing.

Flush out the bad bots by:

  • Using subscriber list sanity checks to remove bad bot subscribers.  Look at your subscriber list, are there email addresses with actual first and last names, or are they just numbers or random letters @ru (for example).  Are they trying to sign up for your list multiple times?  Use opted in email subscriptions to solve this.  You can also add addresses to a ban list (in Dundee’s Email).  Dundee bans can be created for domains, usernames, or complete email addresses, which will automatically deny subscription requests to your list.

  • Removing old and unneeded sign-up forms from your website.

  • Reviewing your new subscribers report.  If you suspect a problem because the subscriber report is going nuts with inflated numbers, do a comparison between the daily, weekly and monthly growth in your subscriber’s history.

If it’s a click bot, the tactic is a bit different.

  • Insert an invisible link (white link) in your email message.  The URL will be undetected by the human eye.  With clickthrough tracking you can determine who or what is selecting this link and remove or ban them.   Set up a landing page just for this invisible link, to collect those bogus addresses more readily.  Use Google Analytics to id them and move them to a ban list.  There is only one small issue with this method, a good bot may be the one to click on the link. you do not want to remove them.
  • You can use filters, for example to verify if the email was delivered to the correct person and then determine if that address made a visit to the page the link lead to.

Realize that every click in an email may not be the one you need to count.  The best way to measure and track email campaigns may be reviewing engagement:  list members who are engaged with your business, evidenced by not just link clicking but opening the message and reading it.

Handling and filtering bad bots, as of now will continue to be an ongoing task.  If you suspect there’s a bot issue with your email.   And know you are not alone, as the client mentioned in the beginning of this blog . With some filtering and awareness you can overcome bad bots