Are you using a contact form or another application that sends email from your website? Did it suddenly stop working for no apparent reason? If you haven’t checked lately, I suggest you do so. A client of mine recently discovered that she was not receiving email from her site when anyone filled out the contact form. Given that she had just sent out a promotional email, this was obviously not a good situation.
Don’t Assume Things Are Working
If you’re not getting error messages or other indications that something has gone wrong, you probably assume that things are working correctly. Unfortunately, that’s often not a valid assumption. Take the case of my aforementioned client.
The contact form on her site worked fine when we first set it up over a year ago. It’s been working right along until some unknown point at which emails from the contact form stopped coming through. Since it wasn’t unusual for there to be a fair amount of time between contacts, the fact that there were no contact emails for a while wasn’t a red flag.
When my client sent out a promotional email for an upcoming event, however, she naturally expected some response and to her surprise there was none. She went to her contact form and sent herself a test message. She never received the test message which is when she contacted me.
Curiouser and Curiouser
All the settings looked right on the contact form. In addition to my client’s email address I added mine as a BCC and sent a test message through the contact form. The message showed up in my inbox, but my client never received it.
I checked the contact form plugin to be sure it was at the latest version. I tested the plugin from another website where it was used and that worked fine. Everything we tried worked pretty much the same way: I received the messages and she did not.
We have forwarders set up on her hosting account so that “firstname.lastname@example.org” gets forwarded to her personal email address. I sent an email to her personal email and CC’d the forward address just to see what would happen. Sure enough, the forward via the web host bounced back with a message saying it was blocked by her ISP. The reason for the block? The mail server at her web host had been blacklisted by her ISP as a spammer! The ISP was not allowing any email sent from the web host’s mail server to be delivered to any of its clients, including her, of course.
You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Know About
The bounce messages from her ISP had been sent out every time the web host sent her an email via the contact form. We never saw them because they were delivered to the return email address which was…you guessed it…her personal email address. Catch-22! Only when I sent an email from my personal GMail account to her forward address was a bounce message returned to someone who could do something about it!
So, the bounce message told us exactly what the problem was and provided a link to contact her ISP and request that her email be allowed to go through when sent from her web host. That avenue is being pursued, however, it is not the fastest way to resolve the issue. Some ISPs can take a very long time to rectify these situations. Read on to see how we handled the situation quickly.
How Does This Happen?
Most of us are on shared hosting which means that we are one of hundreds of accounts on a given server. Shared hosting is inexpensive as opposed to a dedicated server or Virtual Private Server (VPS) because the cost is spread out over many accounts. Few of us can afford dedicated servers so we share resources with many others on the same web server.
Each web server sends email through one or more associated mail servers. The mail servers, like all servers, have specific IP addresses which means that email coming from any server can be traced back to it.
The problem is that hundreds, even thousands, of accounts share the same mail servers. If someone sends spam from their account, either intentionally or from having been hacked, the mail server from which the email originated can get blacklisted if enough people complain to their ISP. In any case, the blacklist potentially affects every account that uses that mail server.
So How Does Blacklisting Happen?
Most web hosts try to limit the possibility of uncontrolled spamming by restricting the number of emails that can be sent from an account on any given day. It’s fairly common for web hosts to limit outgoing emails from a single account to 250 per day. This prevents someone from using their account to run their own autoresponder, send out thousands of emails a day or engage in similar activities which would use an inordinate amount of server resources.
The problem is that even 250 pieces of spam a day can cause enough complaints to get the attention of the spam police. Some ISPs are quicker on the trigger than others and blacklist the server after only a few complaints. That is most likely what happened in this case.
Those of you who do any kind of emailing through autoresponders such as AWeber are familiar with the problem of people who sign up for your mailings and then later decide they don’t want to receive it. Instead of clicking the Unsubscribe link that is included with every email by law, they click the Spam button. They think that anything they don’t want to receive is spam by definition. AOL users, for example, are notorious for that behavior.
It only takes a few of those on a particular ISP to get the mail server from which the emails originated blacklisted as a spammer. If you’re unlucky enough to have several subscribers on the same ISP who all click the Spam button instead of unsubscribing properly, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up on the spam blacklist at that particular ISP.
The really bad news about that is that the ISP typically won’t notify you that you’ve been blacklisted. So, you’ll be happily rolling along thinking everything is okay until one day you discover that your emails have not been getting to where they should go for God knows how long.
What Can I Do About It?
There was nothing my client could have done in this case to prevent the situation. After all, it wasn’t she who was spamming, but someone else on a different account on the same mail server. No doubt the spammer got his/her account shut down by the web host, but by then the damage was done.
As I mentioned, getting an ISP to remove a mail server from their blacklist can be a challenge and often takes quite some time. The ISP understandably isn’t going to simply take your word for it that everything is okay, but will have to investigate. Most ISPs are extremely busy and investigating blacklisted mail servers isn’t one of their higher priorities.
What we did was to have my client open a free GMail account and use that for her web site destination address. We changed the existing forwards to forward to her GMail account rather than her personal email account. Her contact form still uses the original return address, but it’s now forwarded to GMail. Her GMail account, in turn, can be forwarded to her personal email address and it will get through as very few ISPs are going to blacklist GMail!
The takeaway from this episode should be to test things periodically to be sure they’re working as expected. In the case of your contact form, send yourself a test message periodically to make sure you receive them.
Another lesson is to use a contact form that stores the form data in your database. This way, if someone fills out the form and you never receive it, you can still get the information that was sent by looking in the database. Unfortunately, the contact form plugin I’ve been using for years doesn’t do this and so I will be using a form plugin called Formidable Pro for this purpose going forward. Not only does Formidable Pro store the data from a contact form, but it can be used to build many different types of forms for other purposes, if need be.
Finally, never assume that something is working correctly just because it’s not telling you otherwise! Technology is wonderful when it works, but it has a tendency to fail silently, so to speak, so we have to continuously monitor it, especially when our business is at stake!
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