Troubleshooting: part 3

As I continue to think about how people troubleshoot email delivery I keep finding other things to talk about. Today we’re going to talk about the question most folks start with when troubleshooting delivery. “Did ISP change something?”

image of a head with gears and ideas floating around it

At least once a week I check some delivery or email fora and some form of the question is sitting there.

“Did X change something? We haven’t done anything different and our delivery went way down overnight.”

Did Y change their filters? Our delivery is tanking and all our authentication is fine.”

Anyone hear of a change at Z? We have been having increasing difficulty reaching the inbox and we don’t understand why. Looking for suggestions.

In reality, the answer to this question Does Not Matter and asking it is only going to delay actually resolving your delivery issue.

When filters change

The reality is, filters are continually changing. ISPs and filtering companies are always tuning filters. These changes are roughly in 3 categories.

  • Ongoing tweaking and improvement to provide a better experience for their users
  • Changes done to address a emergent threat (Yahoo deploying p=reject is one example of this)
  • Specific changes to catch a type of spam they had previously been unable to effectively identify and filter.

Filters are not static. They are continually adjusting based on a number of things. We can always assume the answer to the question is yes. Something changed. Now what?

There are basically 3 situations here.

  • The filters did something unexpected and caught mail it wasn’t intended to catch, causing recipients to complain to the ISP.
  • The filter change was intentional but caught more mail than was intended, causing recipients to complain to the ISP.
  • The filter change was intentional and caught exactly the mail that was intended and the recipients didn’t care enough to notice that mail was missing.

In the first two cases, the ISP is going to fix things. They’re going to listen to their users and adjust the filters. In the first case, I expect to see changes and rollback within 24 – 48 hours. In the second, I expect to see changes in 24 – 96 hours.

The third case is the interesting one. Does anyone care about mail they don’t care about going to the bulk folder? Folks sending mail, even opt-in mail, that the users don’t complain about when it’s missing is the definition of grey mail. Filter maintainers listen to their users. If users complain they’ll change things, if users don’t complain they’ll assume the filters are working as intended.

The answer to the question did the filters changed tells you nothing. Of course the filters changed. Either they’re doing something that the maintainers don’t intend, which means they’ll be fixed or they’re catching mail they’re intended to catch.

Instead of asking if the filters changed, flip the question. Why are my users not interested enough in my mail to notice it when it’s gone? Start your troubleshooting from that perspective.

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I did a class at M3AAWG teaching the basic mechanics of sending an email, both really by hand using dig and netcat, and using SWAKS. No slides, but if you’re interested in the script I’ve posted a very rough copy of my working notes here.