Domain Reputation: Hope or Hype?

Posted by George Bilbrey 

Fred Tabsharani has a thought-provoking article on about domain reputation.

I have a few thoughts on the “gold rush” Fred describes, based on my conversations with major ISPs and others in the industry:

1) The industry is making WAY too much out of domain reputation

The manic nature of a “Gold Rush” is exactly what the raft of articles about domain reputation feels like. It feels like a lot of marketers are saying the equivalent of “Now that domain reputation is in place, all my delivery problems will disappear.” Sure, domain reputation has some advantages such as reputation portability (as Fred points out). However, there are two things to note:

* Domain Reputation has been in place for a while at a lot of the top ISPs, but overall delivery rates haven’t improved (at least much) for commercial mailers.

* Domain reputation isn’t the only tool that ISPs are using. IP reputation will continue to be used. It’s the cheapest way for most ISPs to get rid of the bad stuff before accepting messages. Therefore, marketers and their service providers still need to be manage their IP reputation. Meanhwhile, ISPs will continue to use content filtering, URL reputations and other tools as well.

This is not to suggest that domain reputation isn’t important — it definitely is. However it is not a panacea for deliverability challenges.

2) There is still a lot of confusion between “reputation” and “certification”

It’s not clear from Fred’s post what exactly he is proposing as the future business model for the companies/organizations that he mentions. There may be a few vendors who will be able to give marketers a view into domain reputation. Return Path does this by taking data from ISPs and giving mailers a view of what their mail looks like from the ISP’s POV. This sort of reputation monitoring is very useful and will be more so in the coming years. Domain reputation could be expressed as an index. But that is all different from certification which is something else entirely. In most cases ISPs use Certification to easily identify mailers who have great reputations and great mailing practices.

Which brings me to my third point:

3) The kind of reputation data the ISPs have shown a willingness to use is reputation data from their own networks and from other ISPs/receiving networks.

Sometimes these data are shared by third parties (like Cloudmark or Return Path). They will accept some vouching from third parties as to the practices of a mailer when combined with ISP-provided reputation data. But every ISP I’ve ever talked to has a bias towards data from (directly or indirectly) ISPs and other receiving networks.

So tell me: what do you think of domain reputation? Are you confused by how it will affect your program? Are you expecting a huge change (positive or negative) to your inbox placement rate (IPR)? We’d love to hear from you — leave a comment below.

(Ed. note: an earlier version of this post attributed the article on to Chris Wheeler. The article cited was actually written by Fred Tabsharani. Return Path regrets the error.)

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About George Bilbrey

George Bilbrey is the founder of the industry’s first deliverability service provider, Assurance Systems, which merged with Return Path in 2003. He is a recognized expert on the subjects of email reputation and deliverability and is active in many industry organizations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) and the Online Trust Alliance (OTA). In his role as president of Return Path George is the driving force behind the ongoing innovation of our products and services. Prior to Return Path, George served as Director of Product Management at and as a partner in the telecommunications group at Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. in economics from Duke University, and an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, University of North Carolina.

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