Changes to Gmail and their effect on open tracking

13 December 2013

We had literally just talked about how tracking the Open Rate can be tricky for email marketers. Well, things are getting trickier, at least for some email marketers!

Google earlier today announced that images are now showing by default in the Gmail desktop client, and will be soon in the Android and iOS version as well.

Images loaded in GMAIL

What does this mean for you?

The answer differs depending on:

  • Which ESP you are using (some email service providers no longer track multiple opens by the same recipient)
  • How much of your audience is using Gmail (see below)
  • How much your email marketing is reliant on location and other recipient data such as operating system and device

Let’s take a closer look, starting with how these changes affect Gmail users.

Better user experience

Gmail users will now enjoy an email viewing experience that is better (fewer clicks), faster (images will be cached and served super-fast by Google), more secure (images are checked for malware), and more engaging (nice messages will display nicely from the get-go). All in all, it’s a better Gmail for the Gmail user.

Desktop users enjoy this better experience right away. Mobile users of the Gmail client will get the updated software early next year.

For example, a nice-looking email like this one sent by our marketing team will load faster and with images showing from the get-go.

MailUp email showing with images loaded

Are opens tracked? It depends.

ESPs (Email Service Providers like MailUp) generally track email opens by checking to see if an image has been downloaded. Now that Google “serves” images from its proxy servers, this may affect such tracking.

In fact, if you do a search on the Internet for this recent Gmail change, you will find apparently contradicting reports. You will see some people indicate that unique opens (i.e. the first time each recipient opens a message) are tracked, but subsequent opens are not. And you may read other experts say that open tracking is not affected.

Who’s right? They both are. Some systems are now only capable of tracking unique opens. Others can still track all opens. It depends on the technique they use.

MailUp uses a technique that allows us to track opens just fine. So – regardless of what others are saying – email opens in Gmail are still being tracked correctly by MailUp. This includes both:

  • The first time the message is opened (which is the metric used to calculate Unique Opens)
  • Additional times the message is opened by the same user (which is used to calculated Total Opens)

Open rate could be overestimated

That said, now that images are being downloaded by default…

  • GOOD: we will better track those that open, read, but did not use to download images. They’re now being tracked!
  • BAD: we will track as Opens even messages that were never “really” read. The reader is just speed-browing through their inbox, jumping super-fast from one message to the next.

Therefore, what we wrote here remains true: the image-loading behavior in Gmail now becomes the same as that of the iPhone/iPad default email client, potentially causing a distortion in the open rate.


  • You could see an increase in unique opens
  • Some of those opens could be from readers rapidly browsing through messages (this will be especially true when this Gmail change becomes reality on iOS and Android)
  • Those same readers may NOT have downloaded images in the “old” Gmail
  • Those will now count as Opens, but – really – they’re not!

Less details on the Reader

One big change that this Gmail update brings to email marketers is that some data about the recipient will no longer be available. Specifically:

  • IP address, which is used by ESPs to determine an approximate location
  • Operating system/device data (i.e. the ability to know that you are using a Windows desktop and the Firefox browser)

Some are saying that Google did this so that they now have a monopoly on smart, geolocation-based advertising (AdWords ads are shown in Gmail). Whether or not this is true, the reality for all marketers is that we won’t be able to serve in our emails content that is personalized based on location or device.

Assessing impact on your statistics

All of the above is applicable only when the recipient is viewing their email in the Gmail client (if they have a Gmail address, but open the messages in Outlook, none of the above is applicable).

So, what’s the impact for you? Here too, it depends. The percentage of Gmail users can vary quite a bit. Here are some figures provided by Litmus: if you combine Gmail desktop + Gmail mobile, you get an average of around 17%.


The figure might be different for you, however. Check your email statistics to find out.

Note that:

  • Right now images will be downloaded by default only in the browser version of Gmail
  • The mobile app (iOS and Android) will be updated in early 2014


  1. Gmail users will like this change: it means better looking emails, faster, without the additional click to download images.
  2. Beautifully designed emails will look beautiful right away: clicks and conversions could go up.
  3. If you are using MailUp, there are no changes to open tracking!
  4. Regardless of which ESP you are using, the Open Rate could suffer from the “distortion” effect mentioned here
  5. Some additional information on recipients (e.g. where they are located and which device they use) is no longer available: the problem could be limited to a small percentage of your recipients. And it only affects you if you are sending personalized emails that leverage that information.

As a Gmail user, I’m liking these changes. As an email marketer, we’ll see what happens!

This article was written by

Massimo Arrigoni

Massimo Arrigoni

As head of products at MailUp, I spend my days (and nights) thinking of new tools that can help marketers get the job done more effectively. In MailUp 9, for instance, we just introduced a new way for our users to collaborate on email campaigns. With, we took our drag-n-drop email editor and turned into a stand-alone, embeddable plugin. The objective is to create tangible value, gather feedback, and push real product innovation based on it.

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