Reputation is the buzzword in delivery these days. Everyone talks about building a good reputation and how to do it. Makes sense, the ISPs are always hammering on reputation and how critical reputation is. The more I talk with delivery folks on the ESP side of thing, the move I realize that there is a fundamental disconnect between what the ESPs mean when they say reputation and what the ISPs mean when they say reputation.
Many people handling delivery think that the bulk of reputation is wrapped up in complaint rates and bounce rates. I think they know the ISPs measure more than just complaints and bounces (spamtraps!) but really believe that most of developing a good reputation is all about keeping those complaints low.
This perspective may have been true in the past, but is becoming less true as time goes on. There are a lot of very smart people managing incoming mail at the ISPs and they are constantly looking for ways to better meet the desires of their customers. Lest we forget, their customers are not the senders, their customers are the end users. Their customers are not senders.
Part of meeting the needs of end users means actually giving them a way to provide feedback. AOL started the trend with the this-is-spam button, and other ISPs (ones that controlled the user interface at least) followed suit. For a very long time, reputation was dominated by complaint percentages, with modifiers for number of spamtrap addresses and number of non-existent users.
The problem is, these numbers were easy to game. Spammers could modify their metrics such that their email would end up in the inbox. In response, the ISPs started measuring things other than complaints, bounces and spamtraps. These other measurements are strong modifiers to complaints, such that mailers with what used to be acceptable complaint rates are seeing their mail end up bulked or even rejected.
Recently, AOL seems to have made some subtle modifications to their reputation scores. The result is mailers who have previously acceptable complaint rates are seeing delivery problems. When asked, AOL is only saying that it is a reputation issue. Lots of senders are trying to figure out what it is that is more important than complaints.
Tomorrow, I will talk about what I think AOL could be measuring.