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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sender Reputation & What Affects It

Last time, we said that 77% of email delivery problems were based on sender reputation. It's not just about the content any more!

There has been a major shift in how ISPs handle high-volume commercial email. They no longer use crude tools that filter an email because it has "FREE" in the subject line. Today's "filters" are highly sophisticated, dynamic analysis processes that collect huge amounts of data to determine a sender's reputation, based on their sending practices.

One way to think about sender reputation is that it is kind of like a credit score. If yours is good, you have a high probability of being approved for any credit for which you apply. If it is poor, you will likely be turned down. With a good sender reputation, your email has a high probability of reaching the inbox; with a poor one, it will likely not make it to the inbox.

Although the criteria used by each ISP varies, any of the following items can affect your sender reputation:
  • Complaints - This is by far the most important element of your sender reputation. ISPs collect complaints in a number of ways, the most common being a "this is spam" button. Another complaint method is an email sent to an ISP directly or indirectly, from a third-party service like SpamCop.

  • Unknown User Rate - If you send large volumes of undeliverable email then either you are "guessing" at email addresses in an attempt to spam or you have poor list management practices. Either way it's going to hurt your reputation.

  • Rejected Rate - Rejected mail is defined as any message blocked due to policy, blacklisting, or content.

  • User Action - Another factor that affects your reputation is what the user does when one of your emails is delivered, either to the junk folder or the inbox: If the user opens it, unblocks images in it, clicks a link in it, forwards it, archives it, scrolls through it, prints it, or adds the sender to the white list it is good for your sender reputation. However, if the user does none of these things, but just deletes it or leaves it in the junk folder, it can hurt your reputation.

  • Volume of email sent - High volumes of email are indicative of spammers and will likely trigger closer watching by the ISP. How high is too high? Most service providers will compare statistics from other providers and about other email marketers and "too high" is significantly more than others. If your volume is high, then the negatives in your score, especially complaints, had better be low.

  • Authentication - Although not all ISPs insist on authentication, many do and eventually they all will. ISPs use several methods to validate your identity. Since even spammers can authenticate their email, it isn't a complete solution. But, if you're not willing to authenticate your identity, many ISPs won't deliver your email.

  • Infrastructure - There are specific ways that ISPs like to see a mailing system set up. Most important is correct configuration information. Infrastructure problems aren't common, but they are easy to diagnose and correct.

  • Spam Trap Hits - A spam trap is exactly what it sounds like: ISPs reactivate dead accounts to trap spammers. Since these accounts have never signed up to receive any email, if you have these addresses in your lists then either you are not properly pruning the lists or if a purchased list, questionable practices were used to build it. In either case, lots of hits will hurt your reputation.

  • Content - As we saw earlier, content is not as important as it once was in classifying an email as spam. Current research indicates that content is a factor in only 17% of blocking decisions. This is a good thing, since the other elements listed here are far easier to monitor ... and far harder for a spammer to fake.
There are other factors, as well, that might be considered ... and, it is constantly changing, so maintaining a good sender reputation is an ongoing, iterative process, as illustrated below.Next time, we'll discuss what's involved in monitoring your reputation and fixing the problems ... and why it's important to keep doing this.

Of course, the easy way to accomplish this is to let take care of all of the details for you!



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