Google Gmail change Breaks Email Open Tracking

GmailLogoUpdated 14th January 2014

It appears that around the 3rd December Google implemented a change to how linked images are handled in Gmail webmail.

What can this 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

Initially when introduced this only affected new campaigns but now old emails may have images cached too. In tracking terms since old campaigns won’t get many opens/clicks now the impact on reporting is minimal for campaigns sent before 6th December.

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

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.
  • Lyris also tracking unique opens but not total opens.
  • MovableInk have confirmed that device targeting and geo-targeting based on detected location no longer work for Gmail webmail users

Geo-targeting based on IP address and device tracking solutions are impacted.

Andrew Bonar has posted more information about the fix.

Google finally posted on the 12th December why they have made the change to image caching. Its mostly good news, so they can safely move to images always on by default in Gmail webmail. Read the Gmail blog. A new Gmail help article also confirms that the Google change stops any device and location tracking using images.

14th January 2014. The Gmail native App in the Android Play store now enables images by default. As the Andorid App is very popular for email access by Gmail users this makes a material increase to the number of people who no longer need to download images. We expect the iOS Gmail App to be updated too.

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  • Noya Lizor

    Woh, that’s intense. Will have to follow developments on this closely.

  • http://emailexpert.org/ Andrew Bonar

    Thanks for the mention Tim

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  • Luella

    Thanks Tim – will pass on to my colleagues. FYI, I asked about this on G+ last night. No help…here’s the thread: https://plus.google.com/+NickPiepmeier/posts/jfFL5mk6DTP

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      Welcome, see still no action on the G+ thread. Talk soon.

  • Pingback: More info about Gmail image caching – Word to the Wise

  • http://emailexpert.org/ Andrew Bonar

    Thanks for these updates Tim, nice work

  • Pingback: FAQ about opens and Gmail caching – Word to the Wise

  • http://www.netgainstechnologies.com/ Rishikesh Somshetti

    Thanks Tim, Cache-Control and Expires header in HTTP should provide some solution in this case.

    NetGains Technologies Pvt Ltd
    http://www.netgainstechnologies.com

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      Hello Rishikesh, thanks for the tech note, is that a method you’ve tried and tested for your email solution?

      • http://www.netgainstechnologies.com/ Rishikesh Somshetti

        Tim, we are testing it out. Felt more people to put in their views on it.

  • http://www.powtoon.com/ PowToon

    Cool info Tim – This is very important indeed. Learned a lot and signed up to your email. Thanks!

  • http://emailexpert.org/ Andrew Bonar

    Lyris is reporting they are no longer able to track unique opens.

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      Thanks for update. Do you mean they have no open tracking, or just the first unique open or not able to do total opens? Have you a source to reference?

      • http://emailexpert.org/ Andrew Bonar

        Pleasure! They are tracking the first open (and subsequent after cache expires too I imagine). The reference would Be Evan Burkes Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/evan_burke

  • http://emailexpert.org/ Andrew Bonar

    Another update… “The change only affects new email campaigns. Any emails that arrived at the inbox before Google made this change won’t be affected.” That does not seem to hold true…

    I just checked unopened email going back to 2012 and 2011.. All show images by default now

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      Once again thank you for updating me on your latest findings too

  • http://www.thesmtp.com/ lisa Smith

    Great info! Mr TIm and thanks for sharing the info and analysis.

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      You are very welcome and thanks for letting me know it was helpful for you.

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  • archimedes

    Hello. Thanks for sharing this article. The one question I have is if Yesware is affected by the Gmail image setting changes, since I didn’t see it mentioned above. There’s an individual sending me email who is not a marketer, but instead abusing these tracking capabilities for their own twisted purposes. I would’ve preferred my setting to remain at the non-display option, but Google is supposedly “improving its services” at the expense of its users. Needless to say, I wish I had noticed the change sooner.

    • http://www.zettasphere.com/ Tim Watson

      Whilst we have no specific information I would expect Yesware can see the first view but not subsequent ones. However, you can still control Gmail image display. Just choose the option “Ask before displaying external images” under the General tab in Settings