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Email marketers have always faced the technological challenge of having to quickly adapting to the unknown, often in a matter of hours.

This week is one of those, where we find that Gmail has made changes to the way it handles images. At first, I can appreciate that this may sound insignificant, but it affects all of us.

In this blog post, I will try to demystify these changes for you. 

What are the changes to Gmail?

Traditionally, when you open an email, the images download. When you go back to the email, a second impression of each of those images is recorded. 

However, this week Gmail has changed this so that when the email is opened for the first time, Gmail changes the image links so that upon any further impressions/opens, they are served from the Gmail content platform.

How does this affect email marketers?

The following elements of your email marketing are some of the areas that you are likely to be affected:

  1. You will not be able to track Gmail opens beyond the first open. Here’s an example scenario: name@gmail.com opens an email from you. If name@gmail.com then goes back to that email and opens it for a second time, it will not be tracked on the second open or any future opens.

    Only the first instance of the open will be reported. Therefore, you may experience a lower gross open rate.

  2. Location-based live content is likely to be inaccurate, as this is image-based. Currently, all geolocation content is showing as a Google server address, rather than the realtime location on the recipient, even on first open.

    We are seeing this already, in all locations worldwide.

  3. Countdown timers that are fetched in real-time, will not update and fetch the new image upon the second time the email is opened. The original image will be shown again. This is currently not affecting users in the UK, but that is likely to be because Google are still rolling this out.
  4. Any analytics-based tracking by platform (webmail, desktop, mobile), and device will likely only count the first open in Gmail, rather than all of the opens.
  5. If you want to make a change to an image in an email that you have already sent out, perhaps because there is an error, you can of course overwrite the image in your ESP platform. However, Gmail recipients will not see the new image - just the old one.

Matt Hayes, Co-Founder of, Kickdynamic added

It is important to remember that images still have the same impact for email marketers as always. When users go back and re-open the email for the second time the same image is also displayed as normal. The user experience remains unaffected.

Live content still works at the first open. Subsequent opens will display the same image as the first open, which still has significant relevance and personalisation to the customer. Therefore, live content and open time personalisation still has a significant impact on email engagement.

Are there any workarounds?

Currently, there aren’t any known workarounds. It isn’t clear if Google will change this back at some point in the future, and sometimes we have seen changes like this quickly reversed when the impact on the industry is fully understood and taken into consideration.

But for now, the situation remains as I have explained here.

Philip Storey

Published 6 December, 2013 by Philip Storey

Philip Storey is Global Head of Strategic Services at Lyris, London and is a contributor to Econsultancy. He can be found on Twitter

6 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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Andrew King

Andrew King, Sr. Strategy Consultant at Lyris

Great post Phil!

Any idea if this affects emails viewed through POP accounts or mobile devices? I'm guessing that it doesn't.

about 3 years ago

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Jake

Thanks for the heads up!

about 3 years ago

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Andrew Bonar

Hi Phillip

I have spent considerable time on this issue since it reared its ugly head, I imagine much like yourself. However I have drawn different conclusions. I have tested not only Campaign Monitor Platform but also others.

I believe the issues in relation to image cache that appear in the native Gmail interface (something that has been around for a long time) are being confused somewhat with the more recent change of serving images via a Google Proxy.

In relation to how my findings differ from yours:

1." You will not be able to track Gmail opens beyond the first open. "
I believe this is platform dependant. In a 90 second window we see multiple opens being recorded from the same recipient using a single device at Campaign Monitor. I believe the same is true at Smart Focus. In addition my testing at MailChimp showed multiple opens from the same recipient as long as they CHANGED devices.
Many are reporting the single open issue, others seem completely unaffected, whilst some report a total #FAIL.

3. I have not seen this, and my tests involved both US Servers, US clients and APAC recipients/US Servers. See point 1

4. In regards to the analytics, as Gmail is already changing the 'device' that requests the first image, people are already seeing issues with device reporting on some platforms. This should not however affect the 'open' count - unique or otherwise, it is unrelated. However as it appears they are simply appending additional data to the under of the User Agent string, most platforms should be able to resolve this issue fairly quickly.

5. Have you checked the cache in respect of this? If a user has not yet opened the email I am confident they will be served the latest version of the image. If they switch device I believe they are highly likely to see the latest version of the image. If enough time passes between opens I am confident they will see the latest version of the image too.

Of course we may all be seeing different things, as things may be deployed by Gmail to specific geo-locations, or certain code changes are only being pushed from specific data centres and as a result tests may differ from one platform or recipient to another.

To answer Andrew Kings questions, I see this is not affecting those POP3ing in to collect their email.

My own research, findings and analysis on the subject is here:
http://emailexpert.org/gmail-breaks-email-marketing/

Thanks Phillip for sharing your findings, those and the differences I have seen certainly give much room for thought. Hopefully Gmail will come out with a statement or just roll-back at some point.

about 3 years ago

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hassan fakherldien

I love gmail.com

about 3 years ago

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hassan

I need gmail.com

about 3 years ago

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Rob Parker

With Google and GMail constantly making changes, it has become more and more difficult for the average small business to keep up with the changes while continuing to run a successful business. However, as Google currently has 80% of the searches in the world, it appears that we will have to adjust to them rather than Google adjusting to our needs. Oftentimes, small businesses who are having difficulty keeping up with the trends in e-mail or search engine algorithms can find an affordable solution in a small business marketing expert that can help guide them to the most successful means of digital marketing.

almost 3 years ago

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ali

hi berathers

almost 3 years ago

Philip Storey

Philip Storey, Founder & Principal Consultant at Enchant AgencySmall Business

Thanks for your comments.

We have carried out further extensive tests at Lyris and this issue does not affect open tracking on our platform either (in response to Andrew Bonar's comment). We are seeing some small issues with geolocation content such as live maps, but only in a small number of cases.

As for why they have done this, our global head of deliverability suggests that is likely down to anti-spam measures, or a move towards enabling selective image preloading. For now, who know.

How do we overcome things like this as an industry? I think as an industry, we need to campaign to be notified and involved in changes and developments like this. How realistic is this idea? Well, I think it's unlikely, given previous attempts such as fixoutlook.org, but we should at least try.

Have a great day, all.

almost 3 years ago

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Giu

i hate google/gmail

almost 3 years ago

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Gav

Isn't this a good thing for marketers? Rather than Gmail users not bothering to click 'load images' (I suspect a number users) they'll now see the email as you intended, and indeed you will be able to track the opens better overall, rather the artificially low numbers Gmail previously?

almost 3 years ago

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Steve Lake

I found Google's official line on the matter:
https://support.google.com/mail/answer/145919?hl=en-GB&ctx=mail

See the section "How Gmail makes images safe"

It means a loss of visibility of some information from opened emails and I suppose it means that marketers will need to try even harder to give a reason to people to click through from the emails, back to their websites or call centres.

However, as Gav said, at least you can be more confident that people will even see your well-crafted images and photos as they load automatically.

And of course, you can populate your links with campaign codes so that you know which email sent them to the site, and as soon as they land you will get all of the lovely rich data.

almost 3 years ago

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Jose Argudo

We have also tested this issue and is not as bad as it seemed at first. Open rates can still be calculated, and if several devices are used, several opens can be tracked.

As for geolocation, I'm with Steve, a simple link with Google Analytics support can give out that info, and it's also a good idea to have your email campaigns linked with Google Analytics, so more info can be get, including conversion tracking.

almost 3 years ago

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