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The impact of Gmail’s move to default image display?

Author's avatar By Tim Watson 15 Dec, 2013
Essential Essential topic

Google's Gmail change may change Open Tracking reports

Google notified Gmail users on the 12th December that they had implemented a change to the way that linked images are handled in Gmail webmail. They explained:

"...thanks to new improvements in how Gmail handles images, you’ll soon see all images displayed in your messages automatically across desktop, iOS and Android.

Instead of serving images directly from their original external host servers, Gmail will now serve all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers".

So images will now be seen by default by Gmail users unless they proactively switch them off in settings (or have previously done so).

I first alerted email marketers to this on my Zettasphere blog on 6th December since the change has been in place for a while - it appears that around the 3rd December Google implemented a change. Now it's official, we're alerting Smart Insights readers to the change so that you can look out for changes to open rates and potentially clicks now that your appealing creative and offers will be visible by default to many...

In this post I introduce the change and then, at the end review the impact on reporting for different email service providers.

What can this Gmail change mean?

  • Only the first user unique open may be reported. Reporting of your gross or total open rate for Gmail may drop.
  • Geo-location tracking and targeting impacted as location reported is that of a Google server such as Mountain View.
  • Device tracking shows the wrong device, in particular a drop in Gmail Webmail opens.
  • Real time content targeting or dynamic image testing broken as images are not fetched on every load.

The change only affects new email campaigns. Any emails that arrived at the inbox before Google made this change won’t be affected.

The exact details of which services and solutions are affected and in what way is still being established. GmailLogo

However, if you are seeing your metrics show strange or usual trends then you should check with your vendors and IT whether the issue is related to this Google change.

What have Google done technically?

Links to images in emails are being replaced with URLs to Google’s own content serving network.

This means the first time a recipient loads a particular linked image in your email Google will fetch the image from your servers and then for all further loads of that image,by any recipient, the image is provided by Google’s own servers.

Open tracking images have unique files names or query string parameters which means these can’t be cached by Google across all users but have to be loaded on a per user basis. So at least the first load and hence first open tracking event should still be reliably recorded.

Services that use the IP address (Geo-location) or user agent string (Device) in the http image request to determine the image to be delivered can also be affected as to your servers the request will appear to come from a Google IP address and requesting device is a server rather than the actual users device.

Further technical details have been posted by Laura Atkins (Word to the Wise),  Jeff Batte (DEG) and Andrew Bonar (Email Expert) who reports that some but not all email solutions are impacted.

These ESP solutions are reporting their open tracking is not affected:

Vendors with some impact are:

  • MailChimp have confirmed unique opens are OK but total or gross opens are impacted as predicted in this post
  • Litmus have confirmed unique opens are correct but you must setup a unique users ID in the Litmus tracking codes. Total opens are impacted.

Geo-targeting based on IP address and device tracking solutions are still impacted to our knowledge.

Andrew Bonar has also posted more information about the fix.

Author's avatar

By Tim Watson

Tim is founder of email marketing consultancy Zettasphere and EOS Implementer at Traction Six. Experience includes Operations Director at Email Reaction and Marketing Director (fractional) in the US delivering a 310% revenue increase to $5m. Tim has 15 years of email marketing expertise with a heavily analytical approach to strategic choices. Connect with Tim via LinkedIn or Twitter.

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