Gmail: Tracking Disruption for Marketers

UPDATE: Effective Monday, January 6 ExactTarget will be updating its domains from imh.exacttarget.com to mc.exacttarget.com to help mitigate the effects of Gmail’s unannounced changes.

As of around 2pm Central time today (12/5), we began to hear from sources around the email marketing community that many marketers were experiencing some issues with Google’s Gmail. It appears that Google has made unannounced changes that are affecting marketers’ abilities to track opened emails within their webmail environment. Here’s what we know so far:

  • Some image URLs in the email content are replaced by a call to Google’s content caching service googleusercontent.com. For example, image source URLs like “http://yourserver.com/product.jpg” are being swapped by Gmail for URLs such as “https://ci3.googleusercontent.com/proxy/…#http://yourserver.com/product.jpg.”
  • The result of this change, based on our early testing, seems to be that emails opened in the Gmail webmail environment are not being appropriately registered as opens.
  • This is an industry-wide problem that appears to have begun only recently (possibly even as late as yesterday, 12/4). It is not related to any single email platform or service provider. It applies to anyone who is sending to Gmail.
  • The recipients’ ability to actually see and/or click on the emails does NOT seem to be impaired, only the ability of the sender to track opens.
  • Many of our clients typically see under 4% of Gmail users opening through webmail, so the impact (if indeed contained to webmail) could be mitigated by the significant number of users accessing their Gmail through other means, such as mobile email applications.

At this point, we have no official word from Google on what actions are potentially to blame for these changes or how long they have been in place, but we will continue to research the problem to better understand its origins and implications for marketers.

UPDATE: DEG’s research has confirmed reports from wordtothewise blogger, Laura Atkins, that “Google is rewriting image links. This rewriting appears to be happening during the delivery process. Older messages that are currently in mailboxes aren’t showing this tracking.”

“Normal open tracking happens when a user opens an email and loads images into their mail client. Each email address is given a unique image name so that the sender knows who loaded the image. Every time a user opens the email, the image is reloaded from the image server.

In the new Google setup, the first time an image is opened, Google downloads the image from the image server and caches it on a Google managed proxy. This means that the first image load can be tracked by the sender, but any subsequent image loads will not be tracked.

For senders, this means that only the first open of any individual image will be recorded. When someone opens a mail, Google will check to see if that image is in their cache, if it isn’t, then they follow the link, load the image and put it in the cache. Any time someone tries to load that same image, whether the same or a different recipient, Google will serve the image from the cached page.”

For global images, this means only one user has to open the mail and the images are pulled from the server. In the case of tracking images, every image file name is unique. Every new open will cause Google to grab the uniquely named image. The result is that senders can track the first open, but no subsequent opens.”

We will update this blog as soon as we have any new information.

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