interview-with-keith-kouzmanoff
28 May

Keith Kouzmanoff on the paradoxes of email deliverability and email protection

Create professional emails
Table of contents
  1. The impact of key principles in Google's algorithms on ranking emails and deliverability
  2. The role of the sender's reputation and privacy policies 
  3. Email design, deliverability, and data protection — how are they connected?
  4. Email marketing tools to improve deliverability
  5. Wrapping up
1.
The impact of key principles in Google's algorithms on ranking emails and deliverability

These days, an email marketing strategy that needs to consider deliverability practices, data protection, and email security is doomed to failure. Choosing the right approach for your business to achieve these key points is important. To address these crucial topics, we decided to discuss with Keith Kouzmanoff, email administrator at Inter7 Internet Technologies and senior email consultant. 

Interview Expert

Keith Kouzmanoff
Keith Kouzmanoff
Email administrator at Inter7 Internet Technologies and leading email marketing strategist

Keith Kouzmanoff's background encompasses more than 20 years of experience in email marketing with project management precision and responsibility, and he is one of the first DMA Email Experience Council members.

Keith started in the email marketing field before the dot-com bubble, initially working with his sister on email authentication projects. He worked on high-profile contracts, including building email server farms for ESPs and offering innovative solutions for clients such as weather.com and various affiliate marketers.

The impact of key principles in Google's algorithms on ranking emails and deliverability

Stripo: Let's discuss the impact of key principles in Google's algorithms, specifically the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) and E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) principles, on ranking emails in users' Gmail inboxes. What proactive steps should marketers take to improve their email placement?

Keith: First of all, nobody really knows the full details of Google's algorithm. Claiming to understand what Google looks for fully is short-sighted. However, we can analyze what Google has historically prioritized. Initially, Google's development in the search space focused on understanding user intent through keyword searches, continuously scraping the internet for relevant content.

Nobody knows what Google's algorithm is. Anyone to pretend that they do know what Google is looking for is short-sighted. But what we can do is look at what Google has presented us with.

Keith Kouzmanoff

Keith Kouzmanoff,

Leading email marketing strategist.

Many people claim to be experts in SEO, but often, what Google seeks, as described in numerous documents, is primarily a positive user experience. For example, if someone searches for "puppies," they should easily find relevant content. This user experience principle is also applicable to email.

In terms of the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) and E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) principles, these are simplified but crucial concepts. Emails are ranked similarly to SEO, considering factors like domain age and user interaction. It's not a single rule but a combination of many factors. Google's email algorithm is quite similar to SEO.

If your emails are not reaching the inbox, it might be due to your domain and content not meeting SEO standards. For instance, a domain that's been active for 20 years but lacks content won't rank well because Google doesn't recognize it. Backlinking from reputable domains is also important, akin to the E-E-A-T and YMYL principles.

So, number one, approach email deliverability with an SEO mindset. Google tracks how many people visit your site directly, how many come from other sites, and how long they stay. This user experience data translates into email algorithms as well. Google was one of the first to introduce tabs like Primary, Social, and Promotions to organize emails based on importance.

It's interesting to note that Google doesn’t provide direct communication about these processes, so we analyze and hypothesize to understand better. However, we can understand that we can use all these principles for both our websites and emails.

S: With the evolving email landscape, what are the latest best practices for warming up a domain in 2024 to ensure optimal email deliverability?

K: Well, best practices suggest we should move towards warming up domains. Ideally, we should already have a warmed-up domain. If not, it can be quite challenging to navigate. For instance, Andrew, who has a delivery summit in Amsterdam right now, mentioned a representative from Air France discussing their email practices. Interestingly, Air France does not follow traditional best practices; they use 14 different domains for mailing, which goes against the best practice of using a single domain.

When we talk about best practices for domain warm-up, it's important to distinguish this from building domain reputation. These practices overlap with SEO principles. Can we get backlinks to our domain? Does our domain have incoming traffic? Can we purchase traffic to show Google that our domain is active? There are many strategies to prepare for domain warm-up, but it ultimately depends on the value and goals of your email campaign.

How important is it to warm up this domain? Consider whether this domain is selling nuclear submarines to a handful of people or selling t-shirts to hundreds of millions. In the U.S., we love Apple phones, with 60-70% of people using Apple products, and we love Gmail. Around 60-70% of all email subscriptions come from Gmail addresses.

It is essential to us. One suggestion is to open a Google business account for the domain and pay a small fee to get started for the first two or three months. Google will have your credit card on file, showing you are a trusted customer. If you've paid $29 monthly for the last three months, Google may recognize you as a legitimate user. There are different ways to build trust.

S: Our next question is about the crucial role of data in email marketing. Can you share some innovative segmentation strategies that have emerged in recent years to enhance deliverability and engagement?

K: Absolutely, segmentation is a must. It is better to send 300 emails that reach the inbox than 3 million emails that end up in the junk folder. This approach reduces noise and prevents alienating people. In marketing, this is often referred to as "carpet bombing," where you send emails to everyone without targeting. Instead, you should aim for segmentation.

For Gmail users, segmentation is crucial because Gmail's spam filter is the most sophisticated, while others like Hotmail, Yahoo, Apple iCloud, and cable domains are not as advanced. Gmail's spam filter is years ahead of others. Thus, a must-use segmentation strategy focuses on engaged users who read emails and click links. This is a simple but effective segmentation approach.

The role of the sender's reputation and privacy policies 

S: In an era when sender reputation can make or break email deliverability, what are the newest methods of monitoring and improving it?

K: How can I tell if something is wrong with my reputation? Not all monitoring dashboards show the necessary details. You check important indicators like speed and fuel level when driving a car. Similarly, you need a monitoring tool with a dashboard that shows critical information for email delivery, such as inbox placement. Monitoring Gmail is essential, as Gmail allows for IMAP, enabling you to build a software package to send emails to yourself and gauge performance.

This observation is based on my perception, not statistics. Return Path was known for its strong relationship with Yahoo, but after being acquired by Validity, it seems they now have a better reputation with Hotmail and Microsoft. Validity used to provide free feedback loops but now charges $1500 monthly for this service.

One promising company is Inbox Monster. Founders are very smart people, many of whom worked at Return Path. They focus on inbox placement monitoring, providing valuable insights into where emails are landing.

Regarding the Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP), when an email pixel is fired from an Apple device, it indicates the email landed in the inbox. This helps monitor email deliverability since people use Gmail on Apple phones.

S: Our next question is about privacy policies. With ongoing changes such as those by Apple, how should email marketers adapt their strategies to maintain or improve inbox placement rates?

K: One secret about Apple's MPP is that the pixel fire reveals the phone's location in Wi-Fi mode, typically at home or work. If I email you at noon and you check it at home in the evening, the pixel fire tells me you're home. This can be used to predict user behavior, although it's essential to handle this information ethically.

Finally, with the changes in privacy policies, email marketers need to be more strategic. Understanding when and where users engage with emails can enhance targeting and improve inbox placement. However, always respect user privacy and use these insights responsibly.

S: Data protection in emails and deliverability — how are these two sides of email marketing related to each other? How is email data security related to deliverability?

K: Trust is fundamental in email deliverability. Authentication and encryption standards like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and DKIM (Domain Keys Identified Mail) help verify the sender’s identity and ensure the email content hasn’t been tampered with. For example, DKIM adds an authentication token to emails to confirm the content is unchanged.

However, there isn’t much security in standard email unless it’s actively managed. For instance, using Gmail involves at least three third-party companies that can access your emails. Similarly, other email providers use software like Zimbra, which means your emails pass through multiple systems.

To enhance security, email marketers need to choose reliable partners and be cautious about where they store data. Data breaches are common, and some companies might misuse data by selling click-and-open information to third parties.

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Email design, deliverability, and data protection — how are they connected?

S: How does email design affect deliverability? Can good design improve deliverability, and if so, how?

K: Absolutely. When you’re walking in the snow, you leave footprints. Similarly, email design leaves digital footprints that can be tracked. This is known as Bayesian filtering, where word pair combinations in the email content and HTML tags are analyzed to determine if the email is spam. For example, HTML tags like <p> or common text patterns can influence how an email is filtered. 

Hotmail, for instance, prioritizes correctly formatted HTML. If your HTML isn’t properly formatted, your email might not reach the inbox. This shows that design is crucial in deliverability across different email providers.

A well-known expert, Kevin McGrail, has contributed significantly to spam filtering solutions like Spam Assassin. Over the past two decades, his work has emphasized email content's impact on deliverability.

S: At Stripo, we focus on email design and security. Can tools such as email builders influence email deliverability

K: Email builders can significantly impact both. For instance, recommending not using open pixels unless necessary can improve security. It’s essential to avoid storing or asking for unnecessary information. Collecting only the data you need for segmentation helps protect user privacy.

Additionally, using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) like Cloudflare can enhance security. CDNs protect end users by anonymizing IP addresses and safeguarding data during transmission. This is a cost-effective way to add a layer of security to your email campaigns.

S: What functionalities in email editors can impact email security and deliverability? Do you have any recommendations for our users?

K: Email editors can offer several functionalities to enhance security and deliverability. For instance, advising users to avoid unnecessary open pixels, storing minimal data, and focusing on essential information for segmentation are good practices. This reduces the risk of data breaches and enhances user trust.

Additionally, using CDNs to deliver email content can protect user data and improve deliverability by ensuring emails load quickly and securely. Ultimately, marketers are responsible for using these tools wisely and prioritizing user privacy and security.

What is your credit score? All of these factors contribute to building a model. We're trying to create a profile of our average consumer. Many companies will identify a few customer archetypes. For instance, they might have profiles named Keith, Bob, Alina, and Leila. When a customer comes into the store, the sales staff asks a series of questions to determine which archetype the customer fits into. Big box retail stores often train their sales staff to do this.

When you walk into a store, listen to the questions they ask. They might seem repetitive because the staff is reading from a script to build a customer model. They want to know if you came in for an appliance, a dishwasher, a cell phone, a computer, or to listen to music. These questions help them categorize your needs.

You can use this approach with progressive profiling. You can build a profile over time by asking questions about preferences like favorite color or age. However, this raises ethical marketing questions, especially about keeping consumer data private. Realistically, if you're using a WordPress website, keeping customer data private is very difficult. WordPress gets exploited frequently, often requiring updates.

S: One more interesting question is about deliverability and interactive emails. Interactive emails can be complex in HTML or other formats. Which is more important: deliverability or interactivity? Can using interactive elements reduce email deliverability if the email becomes too complex?

K: Yes, this is a significant issue, often referred to as "bloatware." There was a company, HBO Cinemax, now known as Max, that used to send emails with short video clips in various formats like GIFs and MPEGs. It was visually impressive, but they eventually stopped because people didn't care about those features.

Similarly, Netflix uses compression to deliver video content efficiently. They found that viewers were satisfied with the product if they enjoyed the show, regardless of the video quality.

And what they found is that the person was happy with the product if they liked the show, compression did not matter, and picture quality did not matter on anything in there.

This suggests that the content itself is more important than the format or interactivity. HBO likely realized this when they saw that the show's quality mattered more than the email format. 

S: In one of your materials, you were skeptical about BIMI, but you later wrote that it was a growing trend. Why did you change your mind? What factors influenced this shift?

K: Building trust is probably the number one reason. Sometimes, to build trust, I have to spend money on things I don’t necessarily want to spend money on. While I don’t think BIMI is always worth it, it’s a necessary investment to build trust with a segment of my consumers. It’s a small price to pay for trust.

There's a logo called "As Seen on TV" that no one owns — it’s in the public domain. It would be amusing to see a BIMI version of that. But seriously, BIMI is not for everyone. If you’re an email company trying to build trust, it can be a tough pill to swallow because it costs around $1000 a year. It’s expensive, but it might be necessary to build trust.

What if someone is only emailing a few people, like family members? In that case, you probably don’t need BIMI. If you’re a serious sender in the email world, consider BIMI an excellent topic for future discussion. It’s part of establishing your domain and trustworthiness. 

But like any good thing, there are problems — like the avatar now for every employee becomes the BIMI icon of trust. Currently, there is no way to remove this once you publish BIMI. Your individual employees must use your logo and can not individualize themselves.

Email marketing tools to improve deliverability

S: We have a few more questions. One is about email marketing tools. In one of your previous materials, you compared email marketing tools for marketers to essential kitchen utensils for chefs. What tools do you consider mandatory for email marketers to streamline success?

K: Just like a kitchen requires basic tools like an oven or microwave and food, email marketers need essential tools. You must have compelling content and a well-maintained email list. These are the basics.

In terms of specific tools, how many spatulas do you have in your kitchen? Probably several. Similarly, marketers need multiple tools: a good email service provider (ESP), design tools, analytics tools, and automation tools. These are like the various utensils in a kitchen drawer, each serving a unique purpose to help create a successful email marketing campaign.

Do I use all of these tools all the time? Now, how many can I do? I usually get you one. I typically use just one. Sometimes I have five spatulas because they’re cheap, and I might throw one away if it’s not useful. The key is to use the tool that works best for you. It’s not necessarily up to the IT director or the marketing boss; it’s about what the person sending the emails prefers. They probably have a favorite tool.

Do you have a favorite spatula? I bet your favorite differs from someone like Salt Bae's, right? Everyone has their preferences.

S: And last but not least, can you share top three best practices for improving email deliverability?

K: Data. Data. Data.

Please note that the opinions expressed are my own and do not represent the views of the email marketing community as a whole. No one person speaks for all, and I have learned from many in the email community. I still continue to learn. Forever the student. While I have shared insights based on my experience and knowledge, email marketing practices can vary widely, and what works for one organization may not necessarily work for another. 

Always consider your specific circumstances and consult with multiple experts to develop the best strategies for your email marketing needs.

Keith Kouzmanoff

Keith Kouzmanoff,

Leading email marketing strategist.

Wrapping up

As an email builder, Stripo pays a lot of attention to data protection and email data security both for our clients and their subscribers. 

Here are some insights into email marketing and best practices that we have gotten from this interview:

  1. Apply the same principles used for SEO to email marketing; this will help you conquer email rankings and improve deliverability. 
  2. Collecting and analyzing data is essential at all stages of email marketing; this helps one make the right decisions when forming a strategy and taking tactical steps.
  3. Choose measures to ensure that email security works wisely; consider the business size and the email marketing scope.
  4. Email design leaves digital footprints that can be tracked, so email editors and CDPs should offer functionalities to enhance security and deliverability. 

We are grateful to Keith Kouzmanoff for the interview, in which we discussed topics that are important for the email marketing industry.

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2 comments
Keith Kouzmanoff 3 weeks ago
"I spoke with Air France last week and the good news is they are trying to minimize their 14 sister domains. Good luck Air France! A positive move in the right direction, what could go wrong? Just about everything, it's email." -- Keith Kouzmanoff
Alina Samulska-Kholina 3 weeks ago
Hi Keith, Thank you very much for this addition to the article. And yes, good luck to Air France in implementing their new email marketing strategy!
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