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Google likes surprising the world of email marketing. Priority inbox, google tabs and now the latest innovation to rock the world of email 'enabling images'.

Gmail, like many email providers, disables images by default to 'protect' users from potential harm. This creates an extra step for the user, in that they are required to 'enable images' to see the email in its full beauty.

Gmail have now decided to enable images by default, and to protect their users, they are going to be serving the images from Gmail servers.

That’s ok isn’t it? Then why is the world of email marketing going into meltdown over the subject?

So what does this mean for email marketing?

In Gmail’s own words;

So what does this mean for you {the recipient}? Simple: your messages are more safe and secure, your images are checked for known viruses or malware, and you’ll never have to press that pesky “display images below” link again. With this new change, your email will now be safer, faster and more beautiful than ever.    

Gmail is doing this by rewriting image queries to go through its own servers. If it doesn’t have a copy of the image, it will call it from the original source, if it does, Gmail will serve it up!

What this means is that an image within an email will be served the first time when someone opens an email, but then it gets cached by google. Google takes a copy of this image and when the recipient opens the email again, it will be Google serving the image, not one from the ESP.

So, does this have the potential to impact email marketing? In a nutshell, yes. On the positive side, Gmail will now display all of the lovely images in your creative, presenting the email the way the marketing department intended.

This will improve engagement, especially for new subscribers who have not yet had the chance to mark you as a safe sender. But what about that 'other' image on the email, the one that no one can see and the one that email marketers love. The tracking pixel.

What’s the effect on open tracking?

The tracking of an 'open' in an email sent to the recipient, is done by inserting an invisible one pixel image into the email body. When the email is opened, the one pixel tracking image is served, and an open is recorded by the sending ESP.

So as you can see, this has the potential to affect the way that open tracking works, as it is only the first image call that is served from the ESP, subsequent calls are made on the images served from Google.

There has been speculation within the industry, of what the potential could be and whether there could be an impact on open rates and the ability to track user behaviour.

From what we have seen so far, unique open rates seem to be remaining the same, but if you like looking at your total open rates, this might be affected in the future, as Google will serve up all of the subsequent tracking image calls.

The other service that seems to be affected, is the geo location data. Device tracking too, is likely to be impacted as Google are blocking the user agent string as well.

Gmail concedes that the following services will be affected:

  • Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location.
  • Senders can’t set or read cookies in your browser. 
  • Gmail checks your images for known viruses or malware.

And then a note on 'open tracking':

In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links. As always, Gmail scans every message for suspicious content and if Gmail considers a sender or message potentially suspicious, images won’t be displayed and you’ll be asked whether you want to see the images.

It’s not all bad news...

So, Gmail is accepting for the time being, that marketers will still be able to track opens. Antony Ha, reporting in Tech Crunch, obtained this information from an unnamed Gmail source:

...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.

In brief:

  • Unique opens should not be affected.
  • The tracking of subsequent opens is affected.
  • Device tracking is affected.
  • Geo location is affected.

This is a big change in the way Google treats email, but the net effect seems to be relatively limited and potentially quite positive. No doubt marketers will be thoroughly investigating any further potential impact this could have on tracking.

First was priority inbox, followed by tabs and now image serving, I wonder what little surprises Gmail will have for us next?    

Tim Roe

Published 13 December, 2013 by Tim Roe

Tim Roe is Director of Data and Deliverability at Redeye International and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via LinkedIn

22 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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David Pavlicko

I don't think this is overblown.

Since almost half of all emails are viewed on a mobile device - and a great number of those users prevent downloading of images in their email because of bandwidth, this doesn't equate to that much of a change.

almost 3 years ago

Tim Roe

Tim Roe, Deliverability and Compliance Director at RedEyeEnterprise

David, thanks for your feedback. Gmail is only making these changes in the web version at the moment. The mobile version Gmail will have these changes rolled out in early 2014. How many users actually download images, is probably dependant on business type and demographic of the user. I have seen mobile "opens" equal those of webmail, but it does depend on the list.

almost 3 years ago


Andrew Bonar

Great article. On the topic of tracking subsequent opens I am still not seeing any problems tracking multiple opens, and the fix described as per my post seems to still be valid.

Post available here: http://emailexpert.org/gmail-tracking-changes-the-fix-what-you-need-to-know/

almost 3 years ago



Great information throughout the article. The SEO tools mentioned above can help increase the engagement of your website or blog. You don’t just want traffic but you want engaging traffic! I personally think “appealing social sharing buttons” are most important when it comes to social sharing. Also agree that email marketing is very important! Awesome post!

almost 3 years ago



Email tracking pixels are unique for each email so Google's changes shouldn't affect reporting.

So this "as Google will serve up all of the subsequent tracking image calls" is incorrect. Every tracking pixel is unique for to each email so it would be impossible for Google to implement.

The benefit to us email developers/marketers and end user (on desktop at the moment) is great as we no longer have to worry about emails looking crap when no images are displayed, and the user is served images as default.

almost 3 years ago


Marie Eyre

Another great artical thanks! Is there anywhere I can understand more around the implications to device tracking?

almost 3 years ago




An article on how to avoid this. You can even try Copernica for a free month trial :)

almost 3 years ago


Nicole Lowe

Such a great stuff and information about email tracking . As a IT student these kind of knowledge for us very good . Thank you so much for sharing your precious knowledge .

almost 3 years ago

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