Gmail has started caching email images. To understand what impact this may have requires that we start by understanding what has changed.
Editor's Note: As 2013 comes to a close, we're pleased to share our top email columns of the year. This article was originally published December 9, 2013.
The dust has barely settled from the furor around Gmail's tabbed inbox when another change comes down the pike. I noticed late last week that Gmail has started caching images, though there hadn't been an announcement from Google. I wasn't the only one who noticed, either.
There is no doubt there will be cries that Google has, once again, killed email marketing. But to understand what impact this may have requires that we start by understanding what has changed.
Email messages are, by and large, pretty static. Once they're sent, they're fixed. The one exception is the images, which are downloaded when the recipient reads the message. As that happens, a treasure trove of information is shared with the image host. Many enterprising companies including ESPs, MovableInk, ReturnPath, Litmus and AudiencePoint use that data in a variety of ways.
By switching to caching the images, Google has caused that source of information to largely dry up.
There are six pieces of information that marketers often rely on that the Google cache impacts:
The Google cache hides the source Internet Protocol (IP) address of the reader. That address can be used to determine the location of the reader. Gmail users now all appear to reside in Google datacenters.
Often, this is used for nothing more than drawing pretty maps showing readership around the world. But some companies also use it to provide more targeted information, like an image with the address of the outlet that is closest to you right now.
The referrer indicates what requested the image be downloaded. This data is heavily used by reports that tell you which folder your email ended up in and how many recipients were using the Gmail web interface versus a native client or the mobile app.
The user-agent string tells a site a lot about the program that is downloading the image. Browser version, operating system and device are often deduced from this. The impact of not having this is two-fold.
Statistics on email client and device usage will be unavailable for Gmail users, but also any tool that customizes images for the audience will be unable to function properly. So delivering a mobile-optimized image for a mobile device versus a desktop will not be viable (responsive design notwithstanding).
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Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.
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