Article Updated May 16, 2013: See Below
MailChimp is one of the most respected companies online and it is widely used by many bloggers, including myself, to help distribute newsletters to readers who subscribe.
The basics of the service are fairly simple, for a fee Internet marketers can have MailChip handle all of the elements of their email newsletter including collecting signups, sending out newsletters, tracking results and removing unsubscriptions.
MailChimp also has tools for converting your RSS feed into a daily newsletter, so all of the posts on your site (or a particular category) are sent to readers that want them. This is what I currently use for my newsletter, which can be found in the sidebar.
However, it’s one of MailChimp’s lesser-known features that seems to have gone awry.
MailChimp’s “Forward to a Friend” feature, a tool that makes it easy for subscribers to forward emails they get to people they know, creates duplicate copies of the pages that are forwarded and places them on a server that is not only public, but also indexed by Google.
This has the potential to create serious duplicate content issues for your site as it has already resulted in thousands of duplicate pages appearing in Google for the sites that use it.
Most worrisome, after contacting MailChip, they’ve said that the feature is designed to work this way and that they have no plans on changing it. Meaning that there is little hope that MailChimp will rectify this problem any time soon.
How the Problem Works
If you’re a MailChimp user, if it is in your template, your email newsletter will likely include a feature called “Forward to a Friend” that enables your readers to send your newsletters to their friends (without using the forward button in their email client).
When that link is clicked it opens up a form that the reader can use to enter their friend’s information. The idea is that, if you customize your email newsletter at all, such as adding your reader’s names to it, this will allow the version forwarded to be customized as well.
This process then creates an HTML version of your newsletter that’s put on the domains forward-to-friend.com, forward-to-friend1.com and forward-to-friend2.com. You can find an example of one of those pages using Plagiarism Today’s content here. You can also find examples from Gawker, Jezebel, Boing Boing (truncated feed) Side Income Blogging and, yes, MailChimp’s own blog.
This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. When I signed up to use MailChimp, I agreed to let it create such duplicates a means of helping me send out my newsletters.
However, the issue is that is that MailChimp is being reckless with the content. All of the domains listed are visible to the search engines and many of the pages that MailChimp creates appear in Google.
This can create a series of problems for bloggers and webmasters, the biggest being duplicate content issues. The URLs not only can appear spammy and cause Google to trust the content less, but it also risks Google selecting the forward-to-friend.com versions over the original, ranking them ahead of your site (this is especially possible with new sites that don’t have a great deal of search engine trust).
In short, if you use MailChimp to email out your content, it’s Forward-to-Friend feature is acting like a spam blog, scraping your content and republishing it for the search engines every time someone forwards your newsletter.
To make matters worse, MailChimp actually gets the issue right with the other cached copy it creates, namely the “View Email in Browser” version.
Though MailChimp saves copies of all of your Web pages on their server, this time using variants of the campaign-archive.com domain (see example), the service has uses a robots.txt file to ensure that the search engines do not access content on it.
The results in Google speak for themselves.
So why was MailChimp being so reckless with the pages that were forwarded when it was so careful with the archive pages? I was certain that it was a simple oversight and wrote them to correct it.
However, I was surprised by the response I received.
Having had great support from MailChimp in the past, I contacted them via their support form. A few hours later, I heard back from “Zachary” in MailChimp’s client services.
However, Zachary told me that the indexing of content was very much intentional, saying that:
While the main archive page is not indexed, as it has a robots.txt attached to it, those forward to a friend archive pages are in fact indexed. This is due to the public facing nature of these shared pages. Campaigns are intended to bring in new customers or followers, as is the nature of marketing, so these pages when shared either via the forward to a friend link, facebook, twitter, etc, once they are made publicly available, Google does index those. And unfortunately there is not a way to turn of this functionality.
As far as removing these pages, he suggested that it was something I need to “discuss with Google directly” and, in the future, remove the option for readers to use the “Forward to a Friend” feature.
The only bright spot was a promise to “keep this feature in our discussion internally” moving forward.
In short though, MailChimp is aware that their Forward to a Friend feature is creating duplicate content in Google and has no plans to fix at this time.
Fixing the Problem
The simplest solution to the problem is for MailChimp to add a robots.txt file to the domains in question, or use meta tags to block search engines from indexing pages.
In fact, with meta tags, they could be applied on a per-page or per-customer basis, making it easy for those who want to opt out of Google indexing to do so while leaving in those who want to be in there.
In the meantime, however, it’s up to MailChimp’s customers to ensure that this doesn’t happen and the only way to do so, as per MailChimp’s suggestion, is to remove the feature from your template, which can be done with MailChimp’s template editor.
That won’t remove the copies that are already up, but it will prevent future ones from being made.
As for the previous ones, if you want them removed you may need to file a DMCA notice with Google. However, that might be impossible as the MailChimp terms of service give them permission to make such copies of your content.
So while they might have the legal right to do this, it’s a shame they aren’t being more responsible with their customer’s work.
Simply put, there’s no reason why the “Forward to a Friend” pages need to be treated any differently than the regular archives on MailChimp. Though MailChimp claims it’s about increasingly publicity, given how popular RSS-based subscriptions are, it’s publicity that could hurt many of the people using the site.
Further, if it truly were about publicity, it would make sense to make the archives themselves open to the search engines, not just the posts that happen to get forwarded via their feature (which will only be a small percent).
In the end though, this is a difficult column to write. I have had a good experience with MailChimp over the years but part of that relationship is that they’re a company I felt comfortable trusting my content to. Now, however, it’s clear that they don’t take my work and the decisions I make about it as seriously as I do.
This has me torn on how to handle the matter. I’m going to start looking at alternatives and may transition away soon. In the meantime though, I’m going to keep that particular feature off and see if MailChimp changes its mind about this issue in the near future.
Update: May 16, 2013
Today I received an email from Neil at MailChimp confirming that they have addressed the problem and have added robots.txt to all relevant domains.
All of the following robots.txt files are now active and are blocking search engine access…
Once Google reindexes the domains, all content should be removed from the search index, eliminating the duplicate content issue.
In short, the issue has been resolved.
Thank you MailChimp for your swift response to this issue…