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How To Improve Domain Reputation

Last Updated, 2020-07-04 email-delivery spam

You can't buy or transfer Domain reputation. Like any other reputation, it can only be earned. Whether you're a big brand, running the business for ages or a startup with a new domain name, low domain reputation is now becoming a common problem in the industry. This low domain reputation is directly proportional to your email deliverability, which means.

Low Domain Reputation = Low Inbox Placement

This tutorial will help you in learning A-Z of domain reputation and steps to build or rebuild it from scratch. 

FAQs

Email Delivery Vs Email Deliverability

Before going deep into Domain Reputation, let's first understand the term email deliverability, which gets impacted because of low domain reputation. 

There is a big difference between email delivery and the term email deliverability. When your email service provider claims to offer 98% email delivery, ask what does that really mean? Is it just submitting the emails to ISPs like Gmail, Yahoo or Outlook or does that mean delivering emails to recipient's inbox?

Email delivery refers to the number of emails successfully submitted to ISPs for actual delivery to the recipient mailbox. This stage of email delivery doesn't care about whether the emails are actually getting delivered to the recipient's mailbox or not. However, Email deliverability refers to the number of emails that are not just getting delivered, but are actually landing in the recipient's inbox.

Achieving high email deliverability is a by-product of the high domain and IP reputation.

It's a common myth among email senders that achieving high inbox placement rate is only possible by sending emails from a highly reputed IP address. And, hence they keep switching email service providers and pay a premium in the hope that they will get a premium set of IP addresses for delivery. But, that's not how the email deliverability works with most of the leading ISPs.

Low Domain Reputation + High IP Reputation = Low Inbox Placement Rate.

While IP reputation is an important factor to consider, but its contribution to inbox placement is probably less than 10%. Which means distributing your email volumes between different email service providers is not a solution to get high inbox placement rates.

Let's see what this domain reputation, which takes the remaining 90% of the credits for inbox placement.

 

What is Domain Reputation?

Domain reputation is the reputation of an email sending domain built based on the historical pattern of email sending and the ratio of engagement on those emails. There are primarily three types of domains used while sending an email. It's important to understand which of these domains are used by the ISPs to check the domain reputation:

  • From Address: This is the friendly domain address which the recipient see after opening the email. If there is no reply-to email address defined, then this is the address which the recipient uses to reply. e.g. sales@yourdomain.com. It is important to keep this address directly associated with your primary domain, e.g. yourdomain.com. For your transactional email stream, you can use no-reply@yourdomain.com, and for your marketing stream, you should use any sub-domain of the primary domain, e.g. no-reply@marketing.yourdomain.com 
  • Return-Path domain: There is one more domain called return path domain. This domain is mostly invisible unless you see the full email headers. Return-path domain is the one where the recipient mail server sends the bounce replies. Most of the times, the email service provider sets this to their default server's domain so that they can receive the bounce replies. SPF and DKIM can be aligned with ISPs policy only when the return path domain refers to your own domain instead of service provider's shared domain. Pepipost make it super simple to not only set up SPF and DKIM, but also to set your own custom return path domain.
  • DKIM signing domain: This is the domain which holds your public DKIM key which is used by the ISP to decrypt the DKIM signature to authenticate an email message. This domain acts like your signature, and hence it is important to not only use your own domain for DKIM, but you should be using different subdomains for signing different streams of email.

Interestingly, all these three types of domains contribute to Domain Reputation. And, hence building a good domain reputation requires proper management of these three domains.

It is always tricky for an individual to go deep into the technicalities of these domain reputations, so you need to check with your email service provider whether they provide you with the right tools to measure and manage the domain reputation for your domain.

Key takeaway

If your emails are landing in spam, because you have a low domain reputation, then changing the domain in the from address is not enough to rebuild the reputation. Neither this will help you in increasing your inbox placement rate. Just changing a from domain is a stop-gap arrangement with lesser pros and more significant cons.

If you're currently observing a low domain reputation or just starting with your new email programs, it is always a good practice to keep your email streams segmented at the domain level. Segmenting doesn't mean just changing the from domains, but you need to actually change the domain which has been used to sign your emails.

You shouldn't be buying a bunch of domains for sending your different email streams. Instead, use different sub-domains of the same primary domain for different email streams.

Unlike IP reputation, domain reputation moves with you. ISPs knows that brands and email service providers keep changing their sending IP address for hacking the spam filters, and hence now domain reputation is becoming a central component for ensuring high email deliverability. Domain reputation is not merely linked with your domain name any more. It is now linked with your brand name also. This is why changing domain names is also no more a solution because your brand name is still going to remain constant in your emails.

You can always change the IP of your sending domain but cannot change the domain name more often since it will mean you will have to start from scratch to build your reputation again.

What are the implications of having a poor domain reputation?

A study done by Returnpath shows that the primary cause of the email deliverability issue is mainly due to the domain reputation being low. Almost 23% of cases were due to email content issues, and 77% were due to the domain reputation.

Emails with good sender domain reputation will see the light of the inbox. In contrast, emails with a neutral or lousy sender domain reputation will see the darkness of the spam folder.

Having a Low domain reputation will hurt your email deliverability regardless of from where you are sending emails from. The email reputation of your brand and domain becomes a typical asset in the email delivery. IP address can be changed, your content can be redesigned, but your domain has a sending history which determines the future of your email deliverability.

How domain reputation impacts email deliverability?

If your emails are going in the spam or your customers are complaining that they are receiving your emails, then you should check the reputation of your sender domain immediately.

Some early indicators for low domain reputation:

  1. Open rates are continually declining.
  2. Customers started complaining about not receiving your emails.
  3. Emails start landing in spam in your seed mailboxes.

Your ROI will go for a toss if your domain reputation goes low. 

Low Domain Reputation = Low Inbox Placement = Low Engagement = Lesser Conversion/sales.

Ideally, your email service provider should be notifying you in such an instance of low domain reputation. But in case not, then you should immediately schedule a meeting with your email service provider to discuss the potential issues. 

The first step towards troubleshooting this is to do some basic checks:

  1. SPF, DKIM, DMARC is in place? And whether the Return-path domain is in alignment with DKIM.
  2. Check your domain on various email blacklists
  3. Use tools to check the basic hygiene of your content. 
  4. Try a different Return-path domain and test to check whether emails are still going in the spam.

If you have specific email delivery challenges with Gmail, then the first recommendation is to check the reputation of your domain and sending IP address on Google Postmaster.

Google Postmaster categories the reputation into three categories:

  1. Green - This is an excellent reputation.
  2. Orange - This is a medium reputation.
  3. Red - This is a Low reputation.

Mostly transactional emails sees the green light and marketing emails in orange with some overlaps to green.

If you're in green or orange spectrum, then that's good, but if there's a decline towards the red zone than get its an alarming situation.

You can also use tools like Senderbase and Senderscore to check the domain reputation.

If you were in Green or Orange zone and saw a decline towards the red zone, then its mostly your email sending practice which is affecting the domain reputation.

Key Takeaway

Ask your marketing team to slow down on email sending and check which all campaigns resulted in lower open rates so that you make necessary changes to your content strategy.

What affects my domain reputation?

Email or domain reputation takes a long time to build; you cannot create it overnight. But it can be lost easily by lousy email practices.

These includes:

  • Not maintaining email list hygiene. It consists of checking and removing the email addresses in the email list and removing the unwanted or suspicious ones.
  • You are not using opt-in forms for generating an email list. This verifies that the receiver of the email has willfully accepted to receive an email content from you.
  • A sudden increase in your email sending activities. Consistency in email volumes is one of the most important aspects of email delivery. If the email volumes are inconsistent, i.e. have a lot of peaks and drops in volumes, It will cause the email services to mark you as spam. And it will rank your domain lower in their email reputation list.
  • If you're using a shared IP address, then your domain reputation will continuously be on the line. Malpractice from other users that share the same IP will directly affect the domain reputation of your sending domain. But, at the same time, if your neighboring senders are doing good, you can be greatly benefited. In such a scenario, your email service provider plays a crucial role. For example; Pepipost ensures that no wrong users can enter its shared pool of IP addresses. Even if someone is mistakenly allowed to enter, and tries to misuse, then Pepipost's anti-spam engine immediately catch and suspends them from using the service. Thus it ensures the use of a shared IP address pool is always in the safe hands.
  • A good ESP always recommends email warmups for new domain services since every new domain is eyed as suspicious once for sending emails. Not following the warmup is a step towards damaging the domain reputation. 
  • A large number of hard bounces with your domain name is one of the most significant contributors for the domain reputation hit.
  • Your reputation is the history of your past habits of sending emails. If you have a prior account of sending emails with spam content and in very inconsistent ways, you will find it hard to land into the inbox of many ISPs. It will take some time to improve your reputation.
  • If you don't have a history, i.e. you are a sender with a new domain. You already are in the bad reputation list since no reputation means a bad reputation for any email service.
  • Blacklisting of your domain name or IP address is a deterrent to your domain reputation. It will cause a massive drop in email reputation in the eyes of most of the email services. You being blacklisted means marking you as a longtime offender of email practices. There are some ways you can identify and remove your domain from the email blacklist. It is not a one-time solution but rather a set of email habits you have to implement and follow.
  • Spam placement/inbox placement and complaints by the recipient will decide the domain reputation in the ISP's lists considerably. Most of the ISPs don't want suspicious emails populating their inboxes, so they try these parameters to monitor domain ranking.
  • User engagement is one of the defining factors in being a quality sender since more engagement means most of your emails are opted in by the customers. You are sending relevant emails to the appropriate customer, which is good and considered as one of the best practices while sending emails.
  • Email content defines how you are trying to market your products. There are specific uses of keywords that are recognized as force marketing and are considered spammy and which in turn impacts domain reputation.

How to avoid reputation damage? And Build your domain reputation

  1. Domain warmup -  Domain warmup is done when you have a new domain and are trying to send marketing emails. If you open a new domain address, You are already a suspect. If you send a large number of emails with a new domain, there is a high chance of getting marked as blacklisted. In email warmups, the emails are sent in low numbers initially like 30 or 100 emails per day. These numbers are gradually increased until you gain a reputation for sending the number of emails you want to send. Patience is the key, you've got to have a lot of patience when you are sending emails at the start, to make sure not to tarnish your domain reputation.
  2. Domain Type - When you register your domain, you do it by a specific type of category. With this, you specify to all the emails that you are sending, will be related to that domain. If you deviate from that, you might be telling them that you are inconsistent with your product and are oblivious to the marketing you are preaching in the email.
  3. Domain validation - A lot of ESP recommends domain validation through SPF (Sender Policy Framework) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM). These are the two most prominently used domain verification techniques that solidify you as a valid email sender in the eyes of domain reputation analyst systems. These are the verification methods used by many service providers to identify the validity of your domain. Some of the domain services will ask you to set some of the SPF / DKIM credentials in your domain panel and verify after adding it before continuing with the further process. This process is to protect someone else using your domain for their benefits. These steps also prevent someone else using your domain name to send emails with their system. Because to send emails, the user should have access to the SPF and DKIM panel to register a domain in the ESP sites panel, and this makes it a bit more secure.

Take a stance and be proactive by monitoring the email list.

  • Respond to spam complaints by changing the email habits or changing your email content. Remove the unsubscribed emails. 
  • Remove non-interactive emails. Monitor your email list and just remove the ones that aren't responding to your emails.
  • Track your email recipient Id responses, remove any emails with a hard bounce or soft bounce. 

The things stated above can be quickly done by tracking email bounces, unsubscriptions, Click rates, Open rates. Most of the ESP provides webhooks for these so you can easily integrate these with the email services/software of your choice.

If you follow the above-mentioned steps, you can avoid hitting the spam traps, which are a sure way to land in the blacklist.

What I am trying to say is to clean your email list, maintain email list hygiene. Just keep the emails that are worth sending to and remove the rest. Being a minimalist is vital here.

Actively monitor your email volumes

Avoid landing in spam by keeping the email volumes in check. If you are a long time email sender, then keep your email volumes in check. Check the emails you've sent in specific days and weeks prior and increase the email volumes gradually.  

For people with new domains you are at high risk, think it as you are the most suspicious person sending email on the internet and then send emails. Follow email warm up to prevent any kind of spam listing or blacklisting. 

Be relevant with your email content

Be relevant to the user. Carefully select the people who will be receiving the emails. Do a lot of research on people who will like to receive the content you are sending through emails. Most of the emails are products or promotional emails. Narrow down your email list based on various factors such as Age group, Region, Interests, availability, and much more. Be thorough with the audience you want to target and then act on it. The emails shouldn't be force-feeding people what they don't want. Instead, they should be information people would like to know with their accordance.

Just place yourself in the customer's shoes and see if you would want to receive such emails? 

  • Would you even open it? 
  • Is it relevant to you? 
  • Does it sound forced or spammy? 
  • Would you add it to spam? 

Just be confident that what you send to the person will matter for them to read it.

Dedicated IPs are a boon for bulk emailing

Opt for a dedicated IP and avoid shared IP if you can. It will help to keep you out of danger most of the time. And other people's mistakes would not come to harm your reputation. If your email volumes are lesser than 10k a day, then it is suggested to be with the shared IP address. But, make sure the email service provider is following all guidelines to maintain the reputation of the shared IP address pool.

Be watchful of your email content

Email content still plays a vital role in improving or deteriorating your email reputation. Here are some of the points you can refer, to make your email look upfront and non-spammy. Avoid email content such as 

  • Using CAPITAL LETTERS to market your product. Because nothing says buy this as loud as a bunch of letters in caps.
  • "Buy it!!!". A lot of exclamation signs are not what you want to include in your emails. It looks desperate. Looks fishy and no one would "Buy it" but rather Spam it. 
  • The deceptive looking headline contradicts the email content itself. Like the title starts with "Let us help with your chores" and content comes as "Cosmic robot with no batteries rise and shine."
  • Avoid marketing keywords that would let the providers know you are hellbent on marketing your product on their email platform.
  • Don't add a bunch of links for no apparent reason other than just to receive clicks.

Here is the summary of the recommended email practices form the can spam act:

  1. Don't use false or misleading header information. The [From-address] [To-address] and [Reply-to-address] should be mentioned and must determine who is initiating the conversation and who is in the receiving end.
  2. Don't use long subject lines. The subject line should precisely talk about the content of the message. Refer to the Cosmic robot example.
  3. Identify the message as an ad. If you are sending an ad or marketing campaign, it should be evident and apparent.
  4. Tell recipients where you're located. Your message must include your organization's valid address to tell recipients exactly where you are getting emails from.
  5. Provide recipients opt-out options. Your email message must provide a clear way of opting out of the email newsletter subscriptions. Basically an unsubscribe link that is clear and visible. 
  6. Honour the recipient's opt-out requests quickly. The opting-out mechanism you provide must be able to process the opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you have sent the email. You must honour a recipient's opt-out request (Basically an unsubscribe link) within 10 business days. Charging of any kind of fee or asking for any kind of revealing information about the recipient for unsubscription is prohibited. You can't transfer or send any details regarding the opting out recipient after the unsubscriptions. The exception is the company you've hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
  7. You cannot send empty email messages. Email messages should have a valid header and an email body
  8. The email should be labeled for adult content. If the email content sent is adult in nature is has to be tagged "Sexually Explicit" as determined by FTC (Federal Trade Commission) 

Tools to check your domain reputation

Here are some of the listed tools for the domain reputation check of your email domain

Ipvoid: It checks for domain reputation and also matches your domain IP against specific Blacklisting engines

SenderScore: Provides a rating between 1-100 on your domain ranking according to certain ISPs and in detail. Then again if you want to get a full detailed report you have to create an account

MXToolBox: This shows any kind of problem with your domain name according to Blacklists, Mailserver, Web Server, and DNS. You can see in detailed info if you want to fix any issues regarding the domain listing.

BarracudaCentral: This one is one of the most straightforward reports of whether you are blacklisted or not and will show your domain category too.

TrustedSource.org: This service is owned and provided by Mcafee, and it does a lookup against several Mcafee databases and will give your reputation according to the risk levels.

TalosIntelligence: A service provided by Cisco, This service ranks domain reputation under a legacy in three categories Good, Neutral and Poor, and according to reputation as Favorable and Unfavorable. Other than that it provides many other details such as domain type and server information.

Google-Postmaster:

It is a tool provided by Google to check your domain reputation according to google filters. It will decide the categorization depending on the number of email delivery done to the google servers inboxes. And you should consider this since Google is the largest provider of email services in the world.

The google postmaster gives a detailed look related to the domain and IP score. It has several different categories, such as:

  1. Spam Rate
  2. Domain and IP Reputation
  3. Authentication 
  4. Encryption 
  5. Delivery Errors
  6. Reputation levels

All you need to do is signup to the google postmaster service and check your domain. You will need a proper domain account since you have to verify yourself using SPF and DKIM credentials.

Conclusion

To conclude this tutorial I just want to emphasize you being habitual with the mentioned points in this article. The maintenance and improvement of the domain reputation is a long process and can take a while to understand and get a grip on it. But if you stay on top of it and don't let any loose pass by you will definitely have better email deliverability in the future. In case if you have some different observations or have any queries, please feel free to share below in comments or write to dx(at)pepipost(dot)com.

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