As a means of communication, email has existed for decades, and to say that it has withstood the test of time would be something of an understatement.
In the beginning, it was an alternative to the traditional snail mail. Later, it became a method for sending funny pictures to people on the other side of the planet. Right now, it’s, among other things, one of the most powerful marketing weapons out there.
Website owners like you use emails to engage and communicate with customers, so less-than-perfect deliverability could be a serious problem. Seeing your messages in people’s spam folders is the last thing you want.
But why does it happen sometimes? And what can you do to avoid it?
Let’s find out.
How Do Emails End up in the Recipient’s Spam Folder?
If an email ends up in the destination account’s junk folder, it’s because of one of two main reasons:
- The message’s recipient put it there themselves.
This scenario is particularly frustrating because the person you’re trying to communicate with doesn’t necessarily think the message is spam. Sometimes, people drop emails in the junk folder while cleaning their inboxes. Every now and again, they flag emails by mistake, and they often don’t remember that they’ve subscribed to your service themselves.
Unfortunately, once you hit the Send button, there’s nothing you can do to stop people from flagging your messages as spam. Your only option is to write high-quality emails and keep your audience engaged. Later in this article, we’ll give you a few tips that may help.
In the meantime, let’s talk about the other main reason why your legitimate emails may end up in the spam folder.
- The email was flagged by a spam filter.
Some sources reckon that more than 45% of all emails are spam. Others say that a whopping 85% of all sent messages are unsolicited.
Whatever the exact number, it’s clear that many of the emails flying around are spam. Users don’t want to deal with them themselves, so email providers and security companies develop spam filters to identify suspicious incoming emails and automatically reroute them to the junk folder.
These filters have evolved quite a bit over the years, and nowadays, they’re more advanced than ever. Even so, they sometimes get it wrong and flag a perfectly legitimate email as spam.
If this happens to you, you need to identify what caused the false positive and take the necessary steps to fix it. Let’s look at the most common scenarios.
Why Are Spam Filters Flagging My Emails?
When an email arrives at the destination server, it goes through a rather thorough examination. Spam filters look at a number of different things and calculate the email’s spam score based on them. If the score is too high, the message is diverted to the junk folder.
A high spam score indicates that there are problems you need to address. The issues usually concern one of the following aspects of your mail communication:
- The email’s content.
- The mail server’s configuration.
- The sender’s reputation.
Let’s see the most common problems in all three categories.
Every email has a purpose, and its subject and body are responsible for achieving it. You have certain conversion rates to hit, but in your attempts to keep people engaged, you may make some mistakes that could trip spam filters and send your emails to the junk folder.
Here are some of the most common issues.
Using deceptive and misleading subjects isn’t just bad practice, it’s a violation of the CAN-SPAM act. If a spam filter detects discrepancies between your subject and the email’s body, this is bound to raise some red flags.
In addition, many spammers employ prefixes like “RE:” and “FW:” to grab the reader’s attention, so make sure you use them only for their intended purpose.
It should be clear where the email comes from, so personal messages and questions in newsletter subjects are a big no-no. The same goes for headlines that invoke a sense of urgency.
Certain words and phrases.
Spammers often try to convince victims that they’ll get something for nothing, so words and phrases like “no cost,” “free,” “lowest price,” and “additional income” raise immediate suspicion.
Using them once in an email is unlikely to send your email directly to the junk folder, but they can boost the message’s spam score, especially if you’re overly generous with them.
As spam victims can testify, fictitious members of Nigeria’s royal family could do with a few grammar lessons. Spammers often employ machine-translated text or use their limited skills to compose their messages, and the results are often pretty terrible from a grammatical standpoint.
Because of this, if spam filters see too many grammatical and spelling errors, the message will receive a high score.
Certain punctuation and formatting techniques.
Attention-grabbing techniques like successions of exclamation points or question marks, dollar signs, emojis, words in all caps, etc., should be avoided.
For one, their effectiveness is debatable, especially now, when you have so many other methods for keeping people engaged.
Furthermore, spammers frequently abuse them to get the user to click a link or open an attachment before spotting the red flags. As a result, they are bound to get your spam score up.
Adding a logo and a couple of images inside the email’s body is perfectly fine. However, make sure you don’t get carried away.
On the one hand, your email will be slower to load and read, leading to a terrible user experience. On the other, because spammers try to get around word filters by including text in images, anti-spam tools will immediately flag a large number of pictures as suspicious.
Email attachments are regularly used for distributing malware, so if you plan to send files, you can expect your messages to be put under closer scrutiny.
Combine this with one or more other issues, and you can be sure that the spam filter will send your emails straight to the junk folder.
Links are an important part of legitimate messages. However, they are also integral to many spam and phishing campaigns. A large number of links will get your score up, especially if they redirect to websites with reputation problems.
The ones most likely to get you into trouble don’t display the target URL in plain sight (e.g., users see https://domain.com, but when they click the link, they’re redirected to https://domain2.com). As a result, URL shortening services often trigger spam filters, as well.
A missing Unsubscribe link and other regulated information.
Modern regulators don’t like overly aggressive marketing techniques and insist on giving users an easy opt-out option. An Unsubscribe link is an essential part of any business email communication. In addition to helping you avoid your recipients’ junk folder, it also helps your company’s reputation.
Also, make sure you observe local regulations. For example, the US CAN-SPAM Act mandates that a physical address be included in all commercial email communication. If you send your messages without it, they may end up in the recipient’s spam folder.
A lack of a plain-text version.
Spammers are usually too lazy to create a plain-text version of their emails, so spam filters will likely hold your message in higher regard if you have one. Moreover, some servers and clients are configured to treat HTML emails as suspicious, so a text-only version could improve deliverability further.
The world wide web has dozens of different systems and mechanisms designed to minimize spam.
Your domain, hosting account, and the tools you use to send emails must be configured to work with them. If they aren’t, your messages may end up in recipients’ junk folders.
Let’s see a few of the most common scenarios.
Incorrect email authentication.
Up until a few years ago, email spoofing wasn’t that difficult, and spammers used to do it a lot. They would send their scam emails and make them look like they’re coming from a legitimate address. In response, security specialists built the SPF, DKIM, and DMARC authentication protocols.
If your domain uses them, your recipient’s anti-spam systems can confirm that the emails you send come from a legitimate source. If it doesn’t, your messages may end up in the spam folder.
Incorrect rDNS configuration.
During a DNS lookup, you have a domain name, and you’re trying to figure out which IP it resolves to. During a reverse DNS (or rDNS) lookup, you already have the IP, and you’re trying to figure out whether a particular domain is connected to it.
This is especially useful for filtering spam because although spammers can spoof the sender’s domain name, they can’t change the source IP.
When an email lands on the destination server, the spam filters will check the sender’s rDNS record to see if the IP and the domain match. If they do, the message goes through. If they don’t, it is likely to land in the junk folder.
The rDNS record is often set automatically when you’re pointing your domain to your hosting account. However, you may need to add it manually sometimes.
Inaccurate From/Reply-To information.
You need to be careful when configuring contact form plugins and other tools that automate outbound email communication.
The emails must be sent from an active email address, and the return path must also lead to a working inbox. If that’s not the case, the recipient’s spam protection may flag your communication as suspicious.
A missing MX record.
The job of the MX (or mail exchanger) record is to specify a mail server that accepts incoming emails. Technically, you can send emails without one. However, you don’t want to do it because, to spam filters, this is a massive red flag.
Domains with no MX records can’t receive messages, so spam protection systems will assume that your domain isn’t supposed to be sending out emails, either. As a result, the outgoing communication will be redirected straight to the junk folder.
Your mail server doesn’t comply with the RFC standards.
The RFC standards were developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, and it’s safe to say that without them, the internet would be a very different place. Among them are instructions for how a mail server should be set up and how it should implement and use the available technologies.
If your mail server deviates from them, spam filters are more likely to view your emails as suspicious.
Your mail server’s hostname doesn’t resolve to the correct IP.
This is yet another mechanism spam filters use to identify and block address spoofing. The recipient’s spam protection system checks the hostname of the sender’s mail server. The hostname should resolve to the IP the email is coming from. If it doesn’t, the message will be flagged as suspicious and will likely end up in the spam folder.
A poorly configured mail server on the recipient’s end.
Your recipient’s mail server may filter incoming messages according to specific criteria. If your email doesn’t meet them, it could end up in the spam folder.
Unfortunately, given the pretty much infinite configuration options, it’s difficult to guess why your messages are being flagged. You often have no other choice but to contact the recipient directly and ask them to change their filters or whitelist you as a sender.
The content of your messages and your mail server configuration aren’t the only things that could get you into trouble. Nowadays, spam filters try to ensure only messages from reputable sources end up in users’ inboxes.
As a sender, you go through a thorough background check, and your emails will only be cleared if the anti-spam systems think everything is fine.
The checks are mainly based on whether there have been indications of spam coming from your domain, mail server, or IP address.
Let’s look at some factors that may harm your reputation.
People are flagging your emails as spam.
In addition to a predetermined set of triggers and blacklists, spam filters also rely on users’ judgment when deciding which emails are legitimate.
If a single person flags one of your emails as spam, they are unlikely to pay too much attention to it. However, if multiple users start dropping multiple messages in the junk folder, then anti-spam protection systems will assume that something’s wrong.
A bad email list.
If you’re tempted to expand your reach by buying a cheap email list and sending emails to people who haven’t subscribed to your service, it might be time to rethink your strategy. Sending messages to users who haven’t given their explicit permission to receive communication from you is a blatant violation of the CAN-SPAM Act.
The fines are astronomical (we’re talking thousands of dollars per email), but even if you forget about them, your emails will likely end up in the users’ spam folders, so you will achieve nothing.
Passing through the spam filters once doesn’t constitute success. Email service providers are also interested in what people do with the messages in their inboxes. If they see that people aren’t interacting with emails coming from a particular sender, it’s only a matter of time before they start viewing these emails as more suspicious than others.
Even without the threat of being flagged for spam, low engagement levels are still bad news because they indicate that you’re doing something wrong.
Your domain has been marked as unsafe.
If your website has been compromised and used for malicious purposes, Google will likely flag it as unsafe. When users try to visit your domain, they’ll see a full-screen alert telling them that the site ahead may be deceptive.
Predictably, spam filters will also treat communication from your domain as suspicious and will likely send it straight to the junk folder.
Your IP has been blacklisted.
Spam filters’ job is to keep known spammers away from people’s inboxes, so naturally, if they find out that your IP has been sending out unsolicited messages, the address will be blacklisted immediately, and your outbound communication will be either tossed in the junk folder or blocked altogether.
The worst thing is, sometimes, it’s not even your fault. For example, if you’re on a shared hosting plan, you use the same IP as hundreds of other website owners. Even a single abuser could get your emails blocked.
Your IP has a poor reputation.
Historic involvement in spam campaigns isn’t the only thing that could get your IP address into trouble. When anti-spam systems examine your email, they also check for a wide range of metrics related to the IP. If too many emails are sent from the same address at once, this can raise a red flag, and the same goes for high bounce and low open rates.
How To Ensure Your Emails Arrive At Their Intended Inbox
As you can see, plenty of things can get in the way of establishing a legitimate communication channel between you and your customers.
Spam filters will continue to churn out false positives, and there’s nothing you can do about that. However, there are a few things you can check surrounding your emails and the services you use for sending them. With the right tweaks, you stand a better chance of ensuring your emails go where they’re supposed to. Let’s have a look.
1. Review your web hosting options.
You may as well start with the hosting service. Shared plans are cheap and can be a perfect launchpad for your new project. However, you must remember that you’re sharing the same IP with many other people. A single sketchy account could ruin the reputation of the entire server, so you need to keep your fingers crossed and hope that your neighbors behave themselves, which isn’t always the best strategy.
If you really want to grow your new project and build a strong relationship with your customers, you should probably consider a hosting service with a dedicated IP address. A virtual private server is the obvious choice because, in addition to the dedicated IP, it gives you a completely isolated environment, infinite scalability, and more reliable performance at a reasonable price.
You can find out more about ScalaHosting’s VPS solutions and their advantages in the video below.
ScalaHosting Explainer Video
2. Make sure your domain is configured properly.
When users set up a new hosting account, they try to open the website in a browser and send out a couple of test emails. If they don’t encounter any errors, they assume everything’s fine. However, as we’ve established already, things aren’t quite as simple as that.
If you want your emails to be reliably delivered, you must ensure the MX, SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records are correctly configured. Check your welcome email and, if you need to, ask your host what value you need to set for these records and how.
If you use SPanel, you can control your DNS records from the DNS Editor section in the User Interface.
If you’re adding an MX record, you need the MX option from the Type drop-down menu. SPF, DKIM, and DMARC are enabled via TXT records.
3. Keep an eye on your domain and IP reputation.
If your emails start dropping into recipients’ spam folders, checking whether your IP has been blacklisted must be one of the first things you do. Most spam filters rely on the following real-time blocklists (RBLs):
If your IP ends up on one of these lists, you need to request its delisting as soon as possible if you want to restore your normal email communication. The RBLs will usually request proof that you’re sticking to the rules before unblocking the address.
It might not be a bad idea to set aside a few minutes every now and again to check whether your IP has been blacklisted.
Once again, SPanel users have it easy. Our all-in-one management platform has an IP reputation management tool that checks whether the server’s address is featured on any of the blacklists above and alerts you if it is.
Your IP’s reputation is visible in the top bar on the homepage of SPanel’s Admin Interface.
When it comes to domain reputation, services like Google’s Postmaster Tools and Talos Intelligence’s Reputation Center can give you a better idea of how spam filters view emails coming from your site.
4. Configure your mail-sending applications and services correctly.
Contact forms and newsletter services need to be set up correctly.
Use an active email account as a sender. Many companies now use a personal address ([email protected]) even for automated emails. You have to agree that it’s better than sending messages from [email protected] or [email protected], and because this is a real inbox, it won’t boost your spam score.
Filters will also punish you if there’s no valid reply-to address. Even if you don’t expect any replies to your emails, you should still keep a working inbox to avoid a high spam score. Checking it every now and again may not be a bad call, either.
5. Keep your email lists clean.
Build a good strategy for managing your subscriber base. If you use an email list you’ve bought online, scrap it and start over. You can only build a successful business if you stick to the rules and do it naturally. This means communicating only with people who want to hear from you.
It’s not just about the subscriber count, though. Email clients and service providers view low engagement levels as a bad sign and could flag messages if they think users aren’t interested in them. That’s why it’s a good idea to track your open and click-through rates and single out accounts that usually ignore your emails. Removing them from your subscriber list is your best call in the long run.
Users must also be able to remove themselves. The Unsubscribe link must be clearly visible and should let people quickly opt out of your email list. Any hoops and “Are you sure?” prompts are unlikely to work, so it’s best to avoid them.
Also, according to the CAN-SPAM Act, every unsubscribe request must be honored within 10 days of its filing. Make sure you stick to this deadline.
6. Try to boost your engagement levels.
The more people interact with your emails, the less likely they are to forget that they’ve subscribed to your services and flag your messages as spam.
Keep a close eye on vital metrics like conversion and bounce rates and look for ways to improve the performance. There are plenty of strategies (e.g., including CTAs as buttons rather than text, sending messages at specific times of the day, etc.), and choosing the right one can not only help you grow your business but also improve deliverability.
Some companies ask users to whitelist the sender address, which won’t work all the time but could help you avoid a few more spam folders.
If you’re a smaller business, you can even scan through your subscriber list for accounts that don’t seem particularly engaged with your content and send them a so-called win-back email. This will help you identify and avoid mistakes you’ve been making while running your email campaigns.
7. Avoid spam triggers.
When they’re building their spam protection mechanisms, service providers can use a backlog of billions of unsolicited messages to identify trends, commonly used words, phrases, and formatting techniques. All these act as triggers that either send your message directly to the junk folder or increase your spam score.
The list is too long to cover in detail, and if you don’t have the time to research it thoroughly, you can follow the “if it looks spammy to you, don’t use it” mantra.
Avoid overusing words and phrases like “free” and “limited-time offer.” Think of ways to modify your text and omit them, and if you can’t, put them in context and make sure they’re never in all caps.
If you think you can use clever formatting tricks (e.g., F R E E) to get around filters, you need to think again. This sort of thing is bound to send your email to the spam folder.
Remove any excessive dollar signs and exclamation marks from the subject and the body of the message, and don’t overuse emojis. Make sure there’s no unwarranted sense of emergency, and try to avoid the techniques spammers use to get users to act quickly.
As a business, you need to stay up-to-date with the new email marketing trends and stay honest with your audience. This is the best way to ensure your messages end up in their designated inboxes.
8. Proofread your emails.
Poor grammar and spelling mistakes are historically connected to unsolicited emails, so you shouldn’t be too surprised if you see some of your messages being flagged if they’re not very well-written.
If you’re writing an email in a language you don’t speak, avoid automatic translators whenever possible. They may be suitable for informal communication, but their output sometimes contains awkward grammatical structures that could trip the spam filter.
Have a good look at the message before sending it, and don’t forget to run it through a spell checker. If your emails are in English, you can utilize automatic tools like Grammarly to eliminate grammatical mistakes and make your text easier to read.
In addition to improving deliverability, perfect grammar will also make your business seem more trustworthy.
9. Stick to HTML best practices.
HTML in emails is excellent for making your messages more distinguishable. However, spammers also love to include HTML elements in their emails, so if you’re not careful, you may get flagged by your recipient’s spam protection mechanisms. Luckily, you can follow a few good practices to avoid this.
The recommended width of the body is between 600px and 800px. Your logo, a background, and a few clickable buttons are a nice addition to your emails, but don’t overstuff your message with pictures, as this may seem suspicious to many spam filters.
Keep the CSS code as clean as possible, and use easy-to-read fonts supported on all devices and operating systems. Speaking of devices and operating systems, your emails will ideally have responsive design.
On the one hand, you need to ensure you’ll reach your subscribers, regardless of their platform. On the other, an email that adapts to the screen resolution will have a higher overall score and is less likely to be flagged by spam filters.
10. Pay some attention to your links and attachments.
If you see some of your emails ending up in your subscribers’ spam folders, reviewing all the links in your messages might not be a bad idea. Ensure users know what they’re clicking on and try to be as transparent as possible. Every website you link to has to have a good reputation.
Sometimes, affiliate links may also trigger spam filters, so make sure you remove them as soon as you encounter any problems.
The same goes for attachments. If you need to send something to one or more of your subscribers, you’re better off uploading it to a reputable file hosting service and then inserting a link in your message. Even if you do that, you still need to be sure that users know what they are receiving and why.
11. Don’t send too many emails at once.
While your business is still relatively small, it may be a good idea to be careful with the number of messages you send simultaneously. This is especially true for those using a shared IP address.
Sources that blast out large volumes of emails at once often pop up on the radar of service providers and spam filters. The messages are scrutinized more closely, and if there are other problems, they could easily be rerouted to the junk folder.
To avoid this, you can segment your subscriber list according to a specific criterion (e.g., the time zone can be suitable in many cases) and send your messages in batches rather than all at once.
When everything goes to plan, your emails appear in users’ inboxes mere moments after you send them. However, as we discovered today, things don’t always go to plan.
In fact, your message goes through a bit of a journey, and ensuring it arrives at its destination is sometimes more difficult than it seems.
However, if you configure your service correctly, compose your emails the right way, and keep your reputation clean, you should have absolutely no deliverability issues.
Q: Why have my emails started going to the spam folder?
A: Most likely, something has tripped the spam filters, and they are now considering your emails suspicious. Think about recent changes you’ve made to your emails’ layout or content, and undo them to see if this will have a positive effect. Look into possible configuration problems and check your IP and domain reputation for any issues.
Q: How do I stop my emails from going to spam?
A: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Many things could trip the spam filters, so if your emails are delivered to users’ junk folders, you need to thoroughly investigate the cause. The trigger may be as harmless as a word or a link in your body, but it could also have something to do with your mail server’s configuration or the IP’s reputation.
Q: How do spam filters work?
A: A spam filter relies on a complex algorithm to calculate the spam score of every email that arrives at the destination server. It considers a number of different factors, including how people have treated emails from this sender in the past, the message’s subject and body, and the source IP’s reputation.