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Monitoring Domain Reputation to Engage in Practices That Make You a Reliable Sender

Thoughts by Aleksandar Miceski • Writer Bento

No one is spared from sudden drops in domain reputation, although marketers who send a high volume of messages generally do their best to keep a good name. From the vantage point of email service providers, making a clear distinction between spammers and marketeers is their top priority. After all, email service providers handle a lot of traffic, and more than three-fourths of it is spam.

If we reduce email transmission to the basics, the process is quite simple. Each email contains info about its DNS (Domain Name System) records, so this data can be used to track activity. You use one server to send the message, however, a different server will receive it.

The recipient server (an ISP – Internet Service Provider) has a few ways of assesssing the validity of the email before processing it (DMARC and the domain of the sender, mostly). Of course, these metrics and track records are not foolproof, but can be employed to differentiate between legitimate senders and spammers.

The practice of filtering inbound messages is nothing new. Mail competing for the attention of an executive always passes through gatekeepers before reaching its intended destination. Having a scoring system to determine sender reputation is just a shortcut that serves to decide which messages would be placed in the trash.

Particularly if there is no assistant to sift through envelopes.

What Is Domain Reputation

Domain reputation is introduced so that email providers can assess the validity of the traffic originating from your domain based on its track record. Some call it the health of a domain because, among other things, it’s in constant flow depending upon recent practice.

Granted, it’s a very elusive email deliverability metric – we only know it runs on a scale of 0 to 100. The closer you are to 100, the better your domain reputation. We also know some of the metrics used (more on this below), but we don’t know how the score is calculated. The reason ISPs don’t share their algorithms is quite simple. If they are open about it, spammers and nefarious actors would quickly take advantage and flood their users with unsafe traffic.

Generally speaking, receiving servers rate your emails based on the way recipients react to your message. But the level of engagement is not the only metric that is monitored. ISPs also analyze your connection to other domains and take the age of your domain into account (new/old) as well. And finally, they use the sending reputation of each IP associated with your domain to aggregate the rating.

In Bento, we will always show you your sending IP so you have visibility into the health of your network.

IP Reputation vs. Domain Reputation

The traffic originating from a single domain can come through more than one IP address, so it’s only logical to consider both the domain and the IP when determining sender reliability.

Each email server has its own IP reputation, based on it's sending practices, so you can imagine why a receiving server would like to contrast these two data points.

Benefits of Correlating IP Reputation and Domain Reputation for Companies

Domain reputation guides email delivery and increases the authority of a given sender, which is why legitimate companies may start using new IP addresses to stage their marketing campaigns and also have another IP for transactional emails.

Since the domain reputation is associated with the domain itself, it's easy to switch to (or rather add) new devices to expand company operations. The marketing team can build upon their previous work, including domain reputation, and resume exactly where they left in terms of sending score. The domain reputation will follow a domain name, no matter where you take your domain.

Protection From Cyber Threats

IP reputation works in a completely opposite way. When you switch an IP address, your IP reputation is a clean slate – you start from scratch. A spammer would welcome such an opportunity to get rid of a low sending reputation.

So, can hackers hoodwink ISPs by constantly changing IPs? Of course not. If the new IP address is using the same domain, email providers will rely (in part) on domain reputation to ascertain the validity of the traffic. And if the IP is brand new and it comes from a domain without any track record, then the traffic will be valued by its sending practices – the same as any other new account.

So, if you considered swapping around IP addresses to solve the issues with your domain reputation, forget it. Getting a new IP address without an IP reputation will not singlehandedly solve your bad domain reputation. There are other ways to do that.

The Relevance of Domain Reputation as a Metric

It’s hard to qualify the relevance of domain reputation for overall sender reputation. Domain reputation on its own doesn’t provide a clear indication on the performance of your campaigns. A decrease in domain reputation does serve to signal an issue, but you need to correlate this input with other data to draw conclusions.

For example, if you witness a decrease in open rates coupled with an increase in spam complaint rates and your domain reputation is concurrently dropping, you need to take the hint. These are all signs that you need to work on your subject lines, optimize inbox preview text, and reconsider the content of the messages.

To make things more difficult, you have a different sender reputation for each provider. So, Yahoo will hold a certain domain reputation for you, Gmail will have their own, Outlook likewise... Most of the metrics are common, though. The process is complex, but you can rest assured email service providers will not just keep an eye on open rates and spam complaints. Data on hard bounces, spam traps, click-through rates, and replies will be taken into account. Some of the ISPs will even include detailed records on recipient engagement (e.g. time spent on an opened email).

Tools to Measure Reputation

Marketers who are serious about email ROI should closely monitor domain reputation on a regular basis. Fortunately, there are a lot of free tools for domain reputation lookup.

Trusted Source by McAfee and Barracuda are quite popular for following the overall domain’s health. If you want to improve your sending reputation at a certain ISP, you can use Google Postmaster Tools or Microsoft SNDS. They will provide a more detailed delivery notice including delivery errors, spam traps, and the like. Talos Intelligence is known for providing resources like support and data overviews. A lot of other domain reputation lookup tools offer their own analysis – Mxtoolbox, SpamAssassin, and SenderScore are good alternatives.

The data you can pull from these sources is to serve as a guideline. Domain rep might fluctuate and you can find yourself scratching your head until you identify the reason behind it, so just be aware of this.

Worst Case Scenario

Bad reputation leads to fewer conversions. Email marketers dread this scenario because it doesn’t only result in losing existing subscribers, but it also limits the possibility of reaching new customers. This is because domain reputation relies on a feedback loop. An increase in spam complaints will lower your sender reputation, after which you will receive even more spam complaints.

Sometimes, your messages ending up in the spam folder is not the worst possible outcome. Email service providers may decide to increasingly throttle your campaigns, which can further impede your results, particularly if you deal with big batches.

The absolute worst, though not completely irreparable, is to have your domain blacklisted. It’s recommended to monitor deny listings on a regular basis and stay vigilant. If deny listings of your domain increase over time, that's a clear signal you ought to take action to clear out your reputation.

Remedies to Bad Rep

By this point, most of you are probably wondering: “What do I do if I have a bad domain reputation?” Well, you can take a proactive stance; bear with us. It could literally happen to anyone should they stop keeping up with the changes, so don’t understate its effect.

You might think that dropping the domain altogether and migrating to a new one will solve the issue, but things are not so simple. While you will certainly enjoy a clean reputation for some time, repeating the same practices will bring the same results. So, switching the domain will only work if you also change the way you operate. If you keep doing what you did, your old reputation will quickly catch up to you.

Switching your email provider or changing the sender addresses will also not work. As we mentioned earlier, the reputation is associated with the domain name and not with individual IP addresses. So, as long as you keep the domain, its reputation will follow you.

Before you start tackling the issue, you need to take into consideration that repairing damaged domain reputation takes time. You can’t sort a tanking domain with swift and straightforward action. Rather, it's a long term process (measured in months), so it’s very important to set your expectations early on.

A number of strategies will yield results in the long haul. You can try and implement the following tips (in no particular order).

  1. Focus On the Quality of Your Content It’s obvious – if you don’t want to be considered a spammer, don’t include spam in your content. There is no shame in admitting your content would benefit from some tweaking. Do A/B testing to find the optimal solution for engaging your client base.

Remember that elements such as subject lines, inbox preview text, graphics, and administrative links play an important role in how a recipient responds to your message. So, play with your content; it's cheap and it might improve other aspects of your marketing campaign too.

  1. Keep a Clean Subscriber List This one is easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands (who does?). Fortunately, you can automate a lot of the steps to achieve your goals.

Double Opt-In For example, something as benign as a misspelled email address in your entry forms can lower your sending reputation. It’s recommended to use double opt-in to make sure the email address is valid as soon as the client subscribes to your mailing list.

Email Sequence Once your customers are in, don’t overwhelm them with traffic. Carefully craft the type and number of messages you send their way because a streamlined email sequence eventually works in your favor.

Let Them Unsubscribe No one in the marketing world wants to lose subscribers, but if they are not buying what you’re selling, you better give them the option to exit. It’s far more graceful than getting a reputation of being a spammer. Keep your unsubscribe button visible and accessible – that way the recipients who are no longer interested in opening your emails will not mark it as spam. They will simply unsubscribe.

  1. Set Up Authentication Protocols You all know that email authentication helps establish you as a legitimate sender. So, if you haven’t already set up the standard email validation techniques – SPF (Sender Policy Framework), DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) – do it as soon as possible. And if you already have them, keep an eye on the way ISPs use them.

  2. Don’t Send Your Mail From a No-Reply Address This works on more than one level. Using “[email protected]” or “[email protected]” instead of opting for a no-reply address will definitely influence the way recipients engage with the message.

  3. Get a Dedicated IP It’s quite simple – you are solely responsible for your sending reputation if you have a dedicated IP. By doing so, you keep sending practices in your control as opposed to sharing SMTP where others will influence your score.

  4. Separate Transactional Emails From Marketing Emails Don’t forget – the domain reputation takes IP reputation into account. So, if your marketing campaign somehow ended up triggering anti-spam filters, email transmission to your regular clients will be affected too. When a customer receives a receipt, it might go to the spam folder and no one wants that. Either send your transactional emails from a different domain or use another subdomain to send your marketing emails. This applies to customer support emails as well (if applicable).

  5. Practice IP Address Warm-Up When you decide to use a new IP address to stage your campaigns, don’t overwhelm your subscribers with emails right out of the gate. ISPs will notice that a new domain or new IP address has suddenly started sending a high volume of emails and this will raise suspicion about your intentions. It’s recommended to gradually increase the volume of messages over a period of at least two weeks. Email providers monitor consistency, so give them what they want.

Final Thoughts

The evasive nature of ISPs about the way they calculate domain reputation is unlikely to change. Particularly when it comes to the specific algorithms they use to score our practices – we will remain in the dark on that. Still, you can establish a domain reputation of a reliable sender.

Tools can aid in this endeavor so you can track your score and change your practices if necessary. These things are always in flux, so you simply have to adapt to the latest authentication requirements along with using safe practices. It’s not as easy as stopping to use spam triggers in your email content to improve your reputation, though that’s definitely a good start. A comprehensive approach is needed, but it’s nothing that can’t be done.

The temptation to use unsafe practices during your email campaign might be strong, but reclaiming a favorable domain reputation takes time, consistency, and effort. Fortunately, email marketers are aware (or can easily learn) which of the practices in their playbook are crossing the line. Deliverability is a complex issue and domain reputation plays an important role, so making an effort pays off in the long run.