October 10, 2019

You’re using a shared email tracking pixel. Will this tank your reputation?

Perhaps you knew this already, but maybe you didn’t: In some cases, Return Path supplies a shared URL in the tracking pixel it uses for engagement analytics. Much like the same discussion you see around dedicated versus shared IP environments, there’s a lot to consider when you turn over your sending reputation to people outside of your own organization.

If you’ve never really thought about how a shared asset in your email can affect your deliverability, we can give you a little more information about that so you can better consider what risks you’re willing to take.

First and foremost, think about your IP address, as most of the original reputation tools used by mailbox providers (MBPs) were founded on the principles of IP reputation, using their recipients’ engagement, spam reports, the history of the IP’s behavior, and the technical setup of the mail transfer agent (MTA) connecting to their network to inform their decisions. It was easy to make the association between an IP address sending mail receiving lots of complaints and no longer allowing it to send mail to users. Standard spam filtering would apply to these systems, be it rate limits or outright blocking.

With the rise of Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) in the early 2000s, it became easier to tie the reputations of a sender to their domains, rather than solely their IP.

“The increased adoption of email authentication and the strong ties those technologies have to domain names gave rise to domain-based reputation,” said Carel Bitter, chief data officer at Spamhaus. “Domain reputation systems were created to look at domains in an email regardless of the IP address sending it. This not only allows for early domain reputation to be shared by researchers with MBPs (which adds an additional layer of protection to consumer inboxes), but presents a strong tie to a real-world identity, which then fosters accountability.”

Taking this concept one step further, what if you add a shared link in your email, like a tracking pixel? You’re then sending an email using a domain other than your own. How does this impact your potential deliverability? Services like the URIBL, SURBL, and Spamhaus’ DBL were created to look at the domains in an email, regardless of the sending IP address.

“When you add domains that don’t belong to you to your mail, you let someone else take control of a portion of your sending reputation. For some domains this may not be a big issue, but for others it can have quite a negative impact. Be aware of what resources you include,” added Bitter.

Now we’ll get into how shared infrastructure can be much more unpredictable in its impact on email delivery. Shared services for hosting images, shortening URL, sharing large files, or other similar services, while providing useful solutions for your messaging, are also commonly used services for people looking to distribute malware or send unsolicited emails.

We’ve established how this can work, but let’s look at why. If you are using a URL shared across multiple senders and someone else starts to use inappropriate sending practices, that domain’s caught up in some nefarious business. Remember how spam-fighters look at domains within the email? Well, if you’re including a now-shady domain in your email, you might find the shared tracking pixel’s URL reputation will spread and impact your emails as well.

Plus, this will be harder to diagnose in many cases, because most people start with the IP and domain reputations of the sender without filtering down to the URLs inside the message.

When you look at it this way, it’s a little clearer how this can happen:

This is one of the main reasons the 250ok tracking pixel is tailored to be branded under your own domain rather than a shared domain, unlike Return Path’s practice. You own your own destiny here, without the influence of other senders’ practices. The only entity able to damage the tracking pixel in your email is you. That’s a lot of responsibility, but we think you can manage.

For more information about the impact of third-party pixels, URLs, or image hosting services on your reputation, we’re ready to take your questions!

Author: Matthew Vernhout

Matthew Vernhout is a digital messaging industry veteran and Certified International Privacy Professional (CIPP) with more than a decade of experience in email marketing. Matt is 250ok’s Director of Privacy, and he is currently the Vice Chair of the eec, after serving for several years as the Chair of their Advocacy Subcommittee.

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