Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 18, 2024

Decoding DNS for Writers

by Lisa Norman

A bowl of alphabet soup with the letters spelling DNS, SPF, DKIM, and DMARC

Statements I’ve heard recently:

  • "I keep getting errors from my friend's Yahoo email. Tell her to fix it!" (hint: Yahoo was refusing the person’s email because they didn’t have it set up right…the problem was not on the receiving end, but on the sending end)
  • "Why is MailChimp telling me to do something? What do I DOOOO?" (MailChimp was spitting out alphabet soup… read on to translate)
  • "MailerLite just changed everything!" (Yep. MailerLite had to release a new version in order to cope.)

As the resident geek to a herd of authors, I've heard a ton of this over the last month, combined with a lot of existential dread. Over the years, I've come to believe that when writers experience pure tech fear, it's often because the language of geeks puts them into the uncomfortable space of not knowing what words mean.

For writers, not understanding words strikes at something close to our souls. Words are our life, and when words don’t make sense, it can be scary.

Let's translate all the geek into English.

When we get into our cars, we put the key in, and it goes. Or at least we did, then someone developed these new ignition systems, and we just keep the key in our pocket. I don’t know about you, but I still feel weird getting into a car and pushing a button.

Email is something we all use, but we don’t always know how it works. Let’s face it: most of the time, we don’t WANT to know how it works. Until it doesn’t. Then it becomes a problem.

When you send an email, you are sending it from a “server”—a big computer that is always attached to the internet. Usually, we write our emails using a program like Gmail or Outlook, something on our computer. Then it sends the email to the server, which then uses an internet address system to determine where to send the email. That system is referred to as the DNS system, or Domain Name System.

You know about domain names: those are the website addresses that we use, the ones we type into the address bar at the top of the screen.

A cartoon to help:

The domain name system is the part of the internet that keeps track of what physical machine each website lives on. Websites move, and if you move from one hosting company to another, you’ll need to update the DNS so that your followers can still find you. Owning your own domain name gives you a professional appearance and also allows you to control your space.

But the internet is full of killer robots trying to take your site down. They also love to intercept internet traffic in the middle and re-route it or change it. Bad robots!

If you watched that video, you may have noticed that it is old. The DNS system is as old as the internet. In addition to telling where the websites live, the DNS system also has a set of “records”—lines of text that have important information about how that website works. Among them are records that say who is allowed to send email from that domain, where the email should be coming from, and even bits of encryption to keep the information safe in transit!

Understanding the alphabet soup of DNS records

DMARC

DMARC is an acronym for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance. Translating from the geek, that means a way to prove that this email comes from you. DMARC tells a person’s email system that you are a professional and that if the system can’t prove that the email came from you, you want it to… “quarantine” (stick it in spam), “reject” (throw it away) or “none” (just go ahead and deliver it, I don’t care). Yeah, we probably don’t want “none.” DMARC also allows you to request a report from each email system telling you what they did with all of your emails. (Fair warning: those emails can be confusing.)

DMARC tells email servers what to do if the email isn’t from us, but how do we prove that an email IS from us?

SPF

Nope, we’re not talking sunscreen. SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework. This is the one that says, “this email came from this server, this server is allowed to send things from my domain.”

When a big company’s email server gets an email, it checks to see where that email came from. Then it checks to see who that email says it is from. It checks to make sure that the big web server (hosting machine) is allowed to send email from that person. If the two don’t match, that is an SPF failure. It’ll then look at DMARC to see how you want that handled, but understand: DMARC is a suggestion. Most email servers in our modern environment are now going to say, “nope” and throw it out. It won’t get to spam. That email never existed.

DKIM

DKIM stands for DomainKeys Identified Mail. The important part here is: key. There’s a little bit of encryption added to your email. If the key at the end isn’t the same as the key that is supposed to be there, it means that while the email came from your server, someone grabbed it in transit and messed with it—like someone intercepting a check in the mail and changing it.

DKIM is another test that email servers are using. Email companies use DKIM to prove that your email wasn’t damaged somewhere along the way. Fail the DKIM check and… yep…. you know the drill: “nope” that email gets tossed out.

A DKIM record looks like a secret code. That’s because it is.

Why now?

To be fair, this isn’t new. But over the years, many companies that helped people send out big email lists decided that it was probably too hard for the average person to figure this out. So they had the information available, but they didn’t enforce it.

Enter AI and the dramatic increase in spam over the last year. The email providers are even more tired of spam than you are! Do you know someone who has abandoned an email address because it was getting too much spam? Or someone who just has one email address for all of the spammy stuff and one for their real email? All of that spam wastes time and space. The email providers have decided to do something about it.

Their first step was to start deleting unused email addresses. The next step was to start enforcing the DMARC system.

The goal is to cut down on spam and make email more protected.

You are not alone.

This is where it gets both super-geeky and not nearly as complicated as you might think. If you are sending emails from a wonderful hosting company, they may already have set these for you! This is why I start everyone out by recommending mail-tester.com.

Send an email from the same server as your website is hosted on, and things shouldn’t be too bad.

Finding helpers

AH… but what if you use MailChimp, MailerLite, or some other sending service? This is where the challenge comes in. You need to get those “records” on your server to match up. You need your hosting server to say that it is okay for your email service to send on your behalf.

In your website hosting, there will be a place to set up DNS records. I recommend that you contact your technical support for help here, or get a geek to hold your hand. You’ll need to get the information from your mailing list company and put it into the DNS records on your hosting platform.

This is one of the areas where I’ve really been seeing some of the hosting companies shine the last few weeks. They’re getting swamped with people needing help. But here’s the thing to understand: these geeks have been doing this all day. Your request won’t bother or confuse them.

Support from the various email sending services has also been really good, despite the overload. You may need to be patient to get through, but they should be able to give you the records that you need.

Get the information from your newsletter program, take it to your hosting company or a friendly geek, and they’ll help you get the records in the right place.

Remember: if you are sending from your own website, you may just need to make sure the default records are set up, and some hosting companies have already done it for you. Run mail-tester.com before you panic.

So just getting the records right will fix this?

Well… yes, and no.

If you are sending out a lot of emails, the email companies are looking for a few other hints to make sure you aren’t a spammer.

What do they want? They want people to:

  • open your newsletters
  • click on a link in your email
  • reply to you

According to the official news release, this only applies to those sending over 5000 emails per day, or those who have a reported (spam) rate of over .3%. (Spam reports: those are when people click “spam” at the top when they are reading your email. Note that sometimes the spam button is next to the archive or delete. It is normal to have some spam reports, even if you aren’t sending spam, because people don’t always hit the right button. And no, they don’t realize how much harm they’re doing to their favorite author when they do that!)

But realistically? None of us want to be mistaken for spammers, and I’d like to suggest that if you are sending emails that people don’t want to receive, maybe you ARE actually sending spam.

Best Practices

Go back over my articles on sharable newsletters. Make sure that you are sending out useful emails. Interact with your readers and make sure you’re sending them something they want.

Run mail-tester.com and get your score up above 8/10.

Have a button people can click that will unsubscribe them immediately from your newsletters and be happy when they use it.

Let’s compare notes! How is your email deliverability? Are people getting your emails? Are you having any problems? Have you done anything to get your readers to reply to your emails? What has your experience been?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? Sign up for her newsletter or check out her classroom where she teaches social media, organization, technical skills, and marketing for authors!

Top image by Deleyna via Canva

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32 comments on “Decoding DNS for Writers”

  1. Thank you for this, Lisa.

    I had a lot of trouble validating and authorising my email on Mailerlite. I had a domain name and email connected to it, but it still wouldn't validate or authorise.

    Unfortunately, Mailerlite was unhelpful to me because they said that as they were getting so many requests for help, they wouldn't deal with free queries.

    My very small email list didn't seem to help sales, nor with building relationships. Only one person replied to my emails, although he did so regularly.

    Also, in spite of everything I did, my sign up rate was almost zero over several years.

    The result of days of trying to sort it, was that I got rid of my email.

    You are correct in saying that many of us are confused by geek-speak. It's so obvious to them that they don't realise that many of us don't understand.

    I've been told on occasion to "add this bit of code to *wherever*, with no explanation as to how to do it, where to find *wherever* and exactly where and how to add it.

    I am grateful for your explanation of these acronyms.

    1. Oh, VM - those are the stories that break my heart. And this is often the test of a "good" hosting company vs a "great" hosting company, because if you take the "whatever" to your hosting company, a good one will reply with instructions. (Not MailerLite - the folks who actually have the files that are on your domain name... where your website lives.) A great one will offer to walk you through the process. Back before COVID, I had one that would just do it for me. Now, they'll walk me through it, but at least they stay on the line with me until the problem is resolved.

      I was talking hosting cost with someone recently. These are the costs that are hard to figure into the equation.

      I've heard too many stories like yours.

      A writer's list is so vital. I'm sorry that you lost that tool. BUT - and I'll talk about this more in upcoming posts - what have you done to overcome it? How are you connecting with readers in a meaningful way without it? Because there ARE ways.

      Don't let the geeks destroy your connections to your fans!

  2. All I can say is thank God we have you to sort this out for us. I knew this was long overdue to come down the pike because of increased privacy concerns, but the roll-out has not been "Ludite-friendly" and as you pointed out, full of geek speak.

    1. It has been rough. I've worked through it with a bunch of clients and seen just brutal implementations of it... which is why I wrote this. The actual solution is a copy/paste from one space to another. But FINDING that space... when the geek speak (create record...) makes it sound impossible... sigh.

      Geek is just a language. We're good with languages. The trick is that it isn't included in our Rosetta Stone subscription!

  3. Although I'm not as technologically inept as I once was, I still feel a cottony layer of fuzz cover my brain when I encounter geek-speak.

    I appreciate you more than you will ever know.

    The information you've shared is helpful.

    Thank you, Lisa!

    1. Ellen - truth: I have those cottony moments all the time. I have to sit down, get into my geek brain, and translate. It helps that I have a whole bunch of sites looking to me to solve the things! So I get lots of practice. I have a degree in this stuff, and a couple of certificates to boot... and it is still confusing.

      I have one account - with a company I won't mention - where all of the instructions are written in geek. It gives me so much power and possibilities, but every time I need to go into that space... ugh. They have huge limitations on who they will work with at that level, and I thought at one point that they were judging the CONTENT of the author platforms I was trying to work with. Nope. I realized later, they only work with people who speak geek and they've got questions in the process to weed out the non-geek-speakers.

      Seriously. Elitism at its finest. Those things make me mad. So I write these types of posts. LOL

  4. I just went through all of this with MailerLite on Saturday. I innocently went to do a newsletter without realizing they had completely overhauled their system. Poor ignorant me. LOL

    I knew they'd moved everything to essentially a new site, and I'd taken care of that late last year. But I didn't realize how extensive their system changes were. Authentications, gone. Subscriber landing page, broken, which of course broke the newsletter signup links on my website. I spent most of Saturday and Sunday unraveling and fixing both ML and my website.

    ML was easy enough (recreating the landing page and such). Finding the DNS and DKIM on my website's settings to get MailerLite to authenticate and all was a pain! I had gone through that when I initially set up my ML account a few years ago. Danged if I could remember where it was NOW though. Thankfully, WordPress's help files got me sorted out.

    Made for a LONG weekend, and I'm pretty sure my brains started oozing out of my ears by last night. LOL

    1. Hugs, Dawn. We all feel your pain! It is rough. AND - to encourage you - it didn't matter if you remembered where the thing was or not. I'm sure it has moved in the last few years. Because the tech companies are always moving things to make them "easier"! I work with a bunch of different hosting sites, so I've just given up trying to remember where these things are. Just try to remember what it is called... or where the support button is!

      Well done for working through all of that. Did you run your mail-tester.com test to see it all working well? I love doing that at the end and getting that proof that I've won the battle.

      1. So true! They seem to follow a policy of "If it ain't broke, break it". Much like Microsoft. LOL

        Not sure I want to ask this, but what is mail-tester? I've never used that before. How do I use THAT?

        1. There's a secret to why these things keep changing. The underlying technology is changing... so what WAS working actually will break. So they have to keep updating everything, and the pace of change is picking up. (See my article on surviving the singularity...https://writersinthestormblog.com/2023/04/how-to-survive-the-singularity-of-rapid-technological-change/)

          mail-tester.com is a website. You can run 3 tests a day for free. If you go there, it'll give you an email address - it'll be an ugly one, totally unique. Leave the window open, copy that address.

          Go into your newsletter program and send a test TO that email address. Wait a few seconds, go back to the tab, then click the big button to get your results.

          It'll open up your email, check all of the geeky bits, and even look for other things that might cause problems (broken links, too many images, etc.) and it gives you a long - and sometimes too detailed - report. If you get over 8/10, I'd call it good. Most folks are getting into the 9/10 range, but I want to give some wiggle room because... well, this is a public forum and there are a LOT of things that can go wrong that aren't really WRONG.

          Fix what you can, let the rest go. For example, if you lose .5 because your host is on a blocklist... that's fine. But if you see that your host is on a BUNCH of blocklists... time to question your hosting choices. LOL

          This is just a way to KNOW ahead of time whether your emails will get through or not. It won't see all of the "signals" like open rate, response rate, etc. But it'll tell if there is anything broken in your sending.

          There are others, but I like that one. I find it ... *mostly* understandable. (Although their process of subtracting points and then adding them back in once a test passes is ... weird.)

  5. Thanks for decoding the alphabet-soup of geek-speak. My question to you is one a great many computer users have uttered, mumbled, growled, etc. I know the internet had its roots in the military decades ago, but why can't they speak in plain English we all can understand? When I got the results back from my email, the results were so confusing, I felt I was back in Latin class (very early seventies).

    1. I hear you, Tom. It feels that way! Are you talking about the mail-tester.com results? There's a geek saying: Google is your friend. And that is NOT meant to be condescending. We ALL use it. Take the confusing thing, plunk it into a search engine, and then see if you can find a help article. Or remove identifying bits and plunk it in here and I'll try and decipher it for you!

      In many ways, I think it is a form of elitism. You're either in the know or not. Now a TRUE Geek would say that the concepts are so complex they can't be translated into plain English because they have much greater implications. To which I reply: if you can't explain it to a kid, you don't actually understand it yourself.

      And I think that is at the heart of a ton of geek speak. It is possible to function while understanding a high level overview of a thing, but not understanding the finer points.

      I've been in computers since they clicked when they processed. So the older concepts still connect to practical things for me. But the newer stuff is starting to get very cloudy!!!

      1. Oh - and that Latin class has probably helped you a TON with this. You may even "get" parts of it that some of the Geeks miss! Because at heart it IS a language. And there are some Latin influences.

      2. Tom here: On the email test, I got 7.10. Just what that means...I haven't a clue. They tossed so many acronyms at me, I felt like ducking. I've been using computers since the punch card era, and it seems that geek speak is multiplying faster than rabbits. Ransomware, Fiber optic transmission. The acronyms seem to be coming thick and fast. I'm going to leave the geek speak to youngsters who understand this lingo. I'm going to continue to use my Chromebook, and hope nothing goes wrong. Being a senior, I shouldn't have to learn a new language just so I know my email sever is having a bad day.

        1. I hear you, Tom. Feel free to post some of that here. 7/10 makes me think something isn't quite right. It may be just the DMARC... just the thing that says you've done the thing. Feel free to post some of those acronyms here and we can look at them together!

          1. Oh - and were you using mail-tester.com? Or one of the others? On mail-tester.com, you can copy the URL at the top of the screen and then you could go to deleyna.com and send it to me on my contact form. I'll translate it for you!

  6. So here's what's hilarious to me... I AM tech-savvy -- extremely so -- and this stuff still makes my brain bleed. I hate it. I beg other people to do this stuff for me, or I just don't set up websites or newsletter lists for myself because I don't want to deal with it. (So guilty)

    The day is coming when I'm going to have to just suck it up, because I am writing like a dervish. I will be going over this post and the one you write before it when that day comes *stomps foot...has a big writerly tantrum* But not a moment before.

    1. Jenny - that is actually a brilliant solution. Called "just in time learning" and it is the most critical skill that I think we have these days. Because everything WILL change by the time you get there, and so no need wasting your current productivity on something that'll be different by the time you get there!

      So yay you for being brilliant. That IS your tech-savvy skills showing!

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