Google Says That Despite Changes, Marketers Can Still Track Open Rates In Gmail

A recent change to the way that Gmail displays images will have an effect on marketers, but it won’t be as dramatic as others have suggested, according to a Google spokesperson.

The company announced earlier today that when Gmail users open an email with images, they’ll no longer have to click the “display images below” button to actually see the pictures. Instead, those images will just load automatically.

Seems like a nice-but-minor improvement, right? Maybe for consumers, but not for marketers, according to Ars Technica. The issue is that (as Google notes in its blog post) the pictures are now loading from Google’s servers rather than the senders’. Ars writes:

E-mail marketers will no longer be able to get any information from images — they will see a single request from Google, which will then be used to send the image out to all Gmail users. Unless you click on a link, marketers will have no idea the e-mail has been seen. While this means improved privacy from e-mail marketers, Google will now be digging deeper than ever into your e-mails and literally modifying the contents.

But a Google spokesperson I emailed said that’s not entirely correct. (The spokesperson declined to be quoted.) Instead, they said marketers who track open rates through images will still be able to do so — indeed, they suggested that the data might be more accurate now since open rates will count users who read the emails but don’t load the images. What won’t get tracked, however, is other user data like users’ IP address. So this seems to do more to protect privacy without leaving marketers totally in the dark.

Email marketing company MailChimp suggests something similar in its blog post on the subject:

Using cached images is a fine idea for Gmail, but it has the potential to mess with open tracking for ESPs. Fortunately, MailChimp can still detect the first request for the open-tracking pixel. This won’t interfere with the count of “unique opens” you get in your reports, but it could prevent us from seeing multiple opens per subscriber. …

In Gmail’s announcement today, they said image caching allows them to securely turn on images by default. Image caching still lowers our ability to track repeat opens, but turning those images on means we’ll be more accurate when tracking unique opens. At least, theoretically it should work that way.