Having Trouble with Notifications from your Website?
You may be dealing with transactional email service issues – here’s how to help fix it!
What is Transactional Email?
Transactional emails are the typical emails related to transactions on your website, such as form submissions, purchase notifications (if applicable) or any other website notification sent out from the hosting server. When a notification is sent out from a website, it is generally originating from the hosting server, and sending “on behalf” of a noted email address… unless the hosting server has an SMTP connection to the specified “from” email (which allows the server to literally log into an email service and send the email from within the service itself.) This has been a very common method for website notifications pretty much since the beginning, and has usually not been a problem for most website owners.
However, this is also a common tactic used by spammers. Most spammers will write out a script on a server to launch spam attacks, with the emails originating from the script hosting server and declaring the email is being sent from somewhere else, as most spammers do not send out spam from within an email service itself.
To help combat spam, email service providers use algorithms to help calculate the possibility that an email may be spam, often assigned a “spam score” to an email to determine if the email is likely legitimate or spam. One of these scoring points is the “from” email, where the service will compare the actual origination of the email to the “from” email address, and when the two do not match, a “possible spam” score value is assigned. Other items, such as certain words or phrases, or IP addresses of certain areas of the world known for large instances of spamming, can also add to the spam score. Once a spam score reaches a certain threshold, the email provider may decide to send the email to a spam folder, or even block the delivery altogether.
Email service providers are constantly changing their algorithms to combat the problem of spam. These changes often happen without warning, and without publishing. They have no intention of giving a head’s up to the spammers; however, this also means it can have a real impact on legitimate email as well. If you are suddenly seeing a difference in the deliverability of your transactional emails, this may well be the cause.
How to Correct This
Confirm the hosting service is working
Check with the hosting service provider to see if indeed the hosting server is sending out the email to start with. There could be a server or coding related issue preventing the notifications from going out. The hosting provider should be able to take a look and determine if there is a problem at the server or website level that cold be interfering with the outgoing notifications, and if so, should be able to help sort out that problem. With server issues, it is typically on the host to correct the problem. With code issues, you may need to bring a developer in to help debug and correct the code. So this is the first step in diagnosing the issue.
If you host with Big Head, we advise you to open a ticket and let us know you are having an issue, so we can help diagnose any potential problems at the server or website level.
Check Spam Folders
We realize that this most likely does not need to be said, but missing emails can quite often be found in your email provider’s spam folders. If you do find the emails located in that folder, your email provider may offer options to indicate that the email is not spam. While this may not correct the issue immediately, the services providing this option are usually really good about “learning”, and will generally learn to allow these emails after indicating a specific type of email is not spam several times. If this is not an option, you may also want to see if there are any “whitelisting” rules offered by the email provider to bypass the spam folder. If all else fails, and you are still seeing the emails in your spam folder, you may want to contact the email provider for help in resolving that issue.
It is important that all correct and relevant DNS records are in place for your email provider. Some DNS records crucial for email service providers are not always public facing, meaning that you may not see all of the DNS records actually in place. However, email service providers can test your DNS records to ensure everything is in order. We would highly advise that you confirm your DNS records with your email provider, as they will be able to identify any missing records and provide you with the proper updates needed.
One specific TXT record to double check is a TXT record for a SPF entry. This is a record that helps to authenticate where emails should be originating from. Some email providers will offer a basic default record as part of their instructions, such as Outlook 365. A typical Outlook 365 SPF TXT record would read as follows:
v=spf1 include:spf.protection.outlook.com -all
However, if the email is originating from the hosting server, this SPF authentication would fail by default. The SPF TXT record should include the IP address of the hosting server as well to help authenicate that the hosting server can send email. For example, if your hosting server’s IP address is 198.51.100.0, the SPF TXT record should be amended with an ip4 reference, as follows:
v=spf1 ip4:198.51.100.0 include:spf.protection.outlook.com -all
If your website’s DNS is hosted with Big Head and there are changes required, please let us know and we will happily make those changes for you. Otherwise, make any required DNS changes and test to see if this resolves your issue.
Another option that may help is by adding an SMTP connection to your website, which will allow your website and hosting server to literally log into your “from” email account and send the email from within your service. This will generally correct 99% of the transactional email delivery problems we have seen, as the email will most likely be seen as legitimate.
For those with WordPress websites, an SMTP plugin can be installed on the website, which will allow you to simply enter the email credentials for the “From” email address and make the SMPT connection for you. If indeed you have a WordPress website on a Big Head hosting plan, we can add the plugin for you, so that you can fill in the credentials and make the final connection.
3rd Party Transactional Email Services
If an SMTP connection or plugin does not work directly with your email provider, or you want to bypass relying on your email provider for transactional emails, a 3rd party transactional email service such as MailGun may be a great option. These 3rd party services do send email on your behalf, and are paired with an SMTP connection of some sort, but the deliverability rate is among the best available. For WordPress websites using the Gravity Forms plugin, Mailgun actually has a plugin that connects right into Gravity Forms and sends the email notifications on your behalf.
While these services do charge a fee (generally on a per email basis), the costs are often very minimal. For example, as of the time of this writing, MailGun’s Flex plan costs only $0.80 per 1000 emails sent per month. For most website needs, this should cover all outgoing emails. However, it is worth noting that with these services, each individual email sent from your website will count towards the total. That means if you have one email on a notification and 2 BCC email addresses, each submission would count as 3 email notifications. Other emails, such as system notifications sent to the primary website email and Admin level email addresses may also count to that total. Regardless, unless you are dealing with extremely high volumes of server related emails, the cost is relatively minimal and really reliable. If you are dealing with extremely high volumes, you’ll likely need a 3rd party service to handle the volume as many email services providers cap the overall volume of “sent” emails on a daily basis.
While transactional email issues may be due to the “from” email not matching with the originating server, you may also be dealing with content in the body of the email that is problematic. Always be aware of the content and structure of your emails to ensure that the content doesn’t trigger additional spam warnings. A good place to test the content of your email body is Mail-Tester.com.
If all else fails, you may want to consider looking at alternative email service providers! Each provider will have it’s own algorithms, and some may be super strict. Changing to a different provider may help allow more deliverability, albeit with a trade off of potentially more spam making its way in to your inbox.
Spam is the Problem
No matter how you slice it, the underlying issue here is spam. Spammers continue to learn and evolve their methods, and as long as it is beneficial for them to do so, they will continue to find ways to bypass your email provider’s security measures. This forces email providers to constantly change to combat the issue.
To help on your end, report all instances of legitimate spam to your email provider. Don’t open emails that you don’t recognize, especially if there are any attachments to them. And never click a link within an email that is supposed to take you to a login page – go to the website directly and log in that way instead.
We hope this helps you to overcome this challenge, and have a much better experience with your transactional email.
The Big Head Support Team.