Apr 26, 2007

Can Spammy Keywords HELP Your Spam Score?

Thm_thumbnails_2Do you think that removing spammy keywords like "click here" and "free shipping!" will help you get past the spam filters?

Not necessarily.

GourmetStation.com recently used our Inbox Inspector add-on to check how their campaigns render in all the major email programs, and to test their work in spam filters.

Running their campaign through real, live spam filters gave us some valuable insight into how they work, and how sometimes, slashing those "spammy" keywords that we’ve all learned to avoid from your copy can actually hurt your spam score!

When we launched our Inbox Inspector Add-on, GourmetStation had already sent their Easter Campaign. Still, they wanted to go back and look at how that campaign looked in the major email programs, so they ran some reports on it.

(click to zoom in)


If we click on the thumbnail for Microsoft Outlook 2003, which would be used by a lot of their "at work" recipients, we can see exactly where the email scrolls on a 1024×768 resolution screen (look for the red dotted line):


Not too bad! They even got their call to action button above the scroll.

But they wanted better. Gourmet Station went back and modified their design for their upcoming Mothers Day campaign, and here’s what it looks like in Outlook 2003:


You’ll notice their logo and "view this in your browser" stuff at the top of the email take up less room, so now their call to action button is way above the scroll, and even allows their "$79.99 Plus Free Shipping — Click for details" text to peek out above the scroll. It’s nice that they made this text (instead of images), too. Just in case people have their images turned off.

Here’s a close up of their new, space-saving header graphic:


Some of you might be thinking, "Wouldn’t the "$79.99 Plus Free Shipping" and "Click for details" text in their content set off all the spam filters?" That’s what we’ve all been taught, right?

Not necessarily. In general, it’s true that you should avoid too many spammy keywords like "FREE" in your campaign, but spam filters are a lot more sophisticated than that. That’s why you’ve got to check your campaigns in real, live spam filters if you want to know the truth.

When we check the Spam Filter report (screenshot below), the campaign actually passes all the spam filters. Spam Assassin gave it a score of "1.7" (the default threshold for Spam
Assassin is 5, so there’s plenty of breathing room here).

But the email didn’t get past the Postini firewall (check out the red "failed" icon):


Clicking the "Reasons" link reveals that Postini thinks it’s some kind of "special offer" and that’s apparently spammy to them (nevermind the fact that our recipients have opted-in specifically to receive "special offers").

At this point, we can try to tweak our copy until we get a 100% perfect score, but then again, that could hurt our conversion rates. I mean, getting past Postini would be nice, but "Free shipping" is an extremely powerful offer for retailers. I’m not sure I’d sacrifice that phrase just for a perfect score here.

Just out of curiosity, I removed the words "Free" and "Click" from the message. For example, instead of "Free Shipping" I used "Shipping’s on us." That resulted in a lower Spam Assassin score (it plummeted from 1.7 to 0.2!) but it still wouldn’t get past Postini.

Hmm. I then removed any remotely spammy keywords from the message: Free, Click, Shipping, $, Gift, etc. Heck, I even took out the word "brunch."

Not only did it still fail Postini, but my Spam Assassin score shot back up to 1.1!

The reason they gave me? "BODY: HTML has a low ratio of text to image area (0.9 pts)"  In plain English, that means I have too many pretty pictures, and not enough text to balance things out. All fluff, no substance.

Those "spammy" words that I removed actually would have helped my spam score!

By the way, this "low ratio of text to image area" is why you should never send an "image only" html email campaign.

As you can see, simply removing spammy keywords doesn’t always help. In rare cases, it can actually hurt! The only way to tell is to actually test your campaign in real, live spam filters.

A big thanks to Donna and Jon at GourmetStation for letting us see these reports.