Domain Reputation: What It Means for Email Senders

Posted by Tom Sather on

Imagine if your reputation was linked to your domain name, rather than your IP addresses.

It would eliminate the need to “warm up” servers – a situation that exists now because ISPs are wary of new IP addresses with no sending history. Domain reputation would essentially make reputation portable – you could add new IPs, you could move IPs, you could send mail from different systems, even different ESPs – and you’d still enjoy the benefits of your good reputation.

The domain name is part of your brand identity, part of the “you” that you’re trying to portray to your customers. An IP address is just a string of numbers.

Of course, the flip side is a bad reputation will also be portable. To some extent, this has always been true. ISPs have used the reputation of domains to block content for a long time now. This is why some companies that used bad third-party marketers found that their “regular” email took a hit when the links in both types of email got tarnished and caused blocking.

So why aren’t ISPs using domains for good reputation, too? Unfortunately, the IP address has for decades been the only thing – the only “identifier” – associated with a message which cannot be forged. Enter authentication, which we talk about all the time on this blog. When a message is authenticated with a domain, the receiving site knows that the message really did come from that domain – which makes domain reputation possible.

Ken Magill has joined the conversation by writing a story on domain reputation, causing renewed buzz in the industry.

According to Magill’s story AOL will implement a domain reputation system sometime between October of this year and March of 2010, a little later than they told us last year. Yahoo! says they will implement something similar “soon,” likely building from their unique domain-based feedback loop.

But meanwhile, Gmail has already implemented an authenticated domain reputation system using both DKIM and SPF together. And, one of the interesting features of the Gmail implementation is the addition of a “trusted unsubscribe” for good senders.

Some of the metrics that Gmail looks at, and that Yahoo!, AOL, or anyone else creating a domain reputation system are also likely to employ, include:

  • How many times mail from this domain went into the spam folder automatically, due to IP reputation or content filters.
  • How many times mail from this domain went into the inbox automatically.
  • How many times a user marked a message from this domain as spam.
  • How many times a user marked a message from this domain as “not spam.”

What should senders do now take advantage of domain reputation when it becomes more widely adopted? We recommend the following steps:

1. Authenticate: You should be doing this already, but if you haven’t, don’t wait any longer. Domain reputation will be based on authentication; specifically at AOL, Yahoo!, and some of our other ISP partners (who haven’t announced their systems yet) it will be based on DKIM.

2. Keep on keeping on: Domain reputation is good for email senders, but it doesn’t change the basic rules of the game. Like IP reputation, domain reputation will be based on the same factors that make for a good sender: low complaints, a clean list and a well-configured infrastructure.

3. Don’t panic: Domain reputation will only work if your domain is authenticated, but you won’t be penalized in terms of deliverability. ISPs will fall back on IP reputation for unauthenticated domains. You won’t enjoy the benefits of reputation portability, but if your IP reputation is solid you won’t take a hit on inbox placement rates.

4. Get Certified: At Yahoo!, the Return Path Certification Program trumps both IP and domain reputation. We certify that you are good sender – as long as you maintain the reputation standards set by the program you don’t have to worry about changes to the way Yahoo! handles email. Of course the benefits of certification extend far beyond that … all the way into 1.3 billion inboxes around the world.


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About Tom Sather

Email data and deliverability expert Tom Sather has worked with top-tier brands to diagnose and solve inbox placement and sender reputation issues as a strategic consultant with Return Path. As the company’s senior director of research, Tom is a frequent speaker and writer on email marketing trends and technology. His most recent analysis of new inbox applications’ effects on consumer behavior was widely cited across leading business media outlets including the Financial Times, Ad Age, and Media Post.

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