As the year comes to an end, it looks like Gmail just had to make one more, very effective change to its interface. Back in May, Gmail rolled out the tabbed inbox.

Gmail tabs

Just as marketers and industry experts started to figure out the best and most efficient way to navigate throughout the new inbox look and feel, Google came out with something completely new: changing the mail Gmail manages images. Here’s how Google explains it to users:

Gmail note to users

What’s happening

Gmail users used to have to opt in to see images embedded in their incoming messages by clicking a “Display images below” or “Always display images from (address)” link at the top of each message. This was to protect users from spammers.


Now, when you send an email with an image in it: the first time that image is opened, Google downloads the image from your server and caches it on a Google-managed proxy. So, when a user gets the email, they will see your image without having to click anything or approve anything. However, the image will load from the Google server rather than from yours. This means that you can track the first image load, but no subsequent image loads by that user.

Note that this change applies to users who open their Gmail in a browser; for those opening Gmail in an email client such as Outlook, how images display may hinge on those client settings. (You might wish to advise your subscribers to ensure that their display settings are turned on, so images will show by default.)

Example of disabled image

Isn’t this a good change for marketers?

So here we sit, during the most important time of year for sending email and hitting company objectives. For your Gmail recipients, your emails will now more often display as intended.

Won’t this help your email marketing efforts? Where’s the catch? All marketers are scrambling once again to figure out the impact.

What’s affected by this change?

Several items will be affected by this new functionality.


The first and possibly most important issue is the geo-location of where your recipients are opening their emails. This includes the IP address and therefore everything that comes with it. Many marketers use this information to segment their list by geography. If you do, be aware that Google’s new change means getting this information via the IP address could be very difficult to come by in the future. All Gmail recipients could start to look like they’re located wherever the Google server is located, which could mean they will all appear to be in California.

What to do? Try looking into other ways to gather geographical data, such as offering a content asset valuable enough that people will trade information for it.

“Total opens”

Secondly, “total opens” of your campaign will also be affected. Is this a bad thing? Based on conversations with industry experts, it seems there are very few marketers that look at the “total opens” as a metric anymore. That being said, “unique opens” will not be affected. With only “unique opens” being captured, marketers will start to see more accurate reporting (and for you Act-On customers reading this: You will not see much impact).

Other effects

Litmus, and tools similar to it, could potentially be affected by this change. Litmus is primarily known for helping marketers see how their emails will render across various desktop browsers, email engines, and mobile devices. But Litmus also reports which device the emails were opened on, post-send. Google’s change means Gmail won’t allow user-agent strings to decipher which image serves up on each device. This in turn means that marketers will not be able to include code that serves up a particular image by browser or device. (N.B.: Responsive design is still being tested.)

What next?

The holiday season, with its attendant swell in mailings, is in full surge. Once 2013 is over and the data is gathered, we expect to see more evidence of the impact of this Gmail change in an industry post mortem. Stay tuned.