Since Gmail’s new tabbed format launched a few months ago, the response has been both positive and negative — from users as well as email marketers. Last week, Gmail announced another major change: automatically displaying images within the body of all emails without a user selecting the “display images” button.
In this article, I’ll explore this latest change and how it could affect email marketing for ecommerce companies.
Why ‘Display Images’ Anyway?
Roughly 10 years ago, Internet service providers and email platforms started to automatically block all images within the body of emails by default. This was an effort to protect the recipient against unwanted spam and phishing scams from so-called “tracking pixels.” To track an opens on emails, a small 1×1 pixel image is placed in the body, which registers the open when the image is downloaded. This is helpful to legitimate email marketers to track opens and overall effectiveness. But malicious spammers can use it to validate your email address and possibly target for the future.
Blocking images posed a challenge for email marketers. Email design thus shifted to making the email effective regardless if a recipient loaded the images, by using text-based HTML for headlines, alt text, and other techniques to help to convey the main message of the email without relying on images
Gmail Changes Image Downloads
Gmail issued this statement explaining why it is displaying images by default, and how it is doing this without posing a risk to users:
But thanks to new improvements in how Gmail handles images, you’ll soon see all images displayed in your messages automatically across desktop, iOS and Android. Instead of serving images directly from their original external host servers, Gmail will now serve all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers.
So what does this mean for you? Simple: your messages are more safe and secure, your images are checked for known viruses or malware, and you’ll never have to press that pesky “display images below” link again. With this new change, your email will now be safer, faster and more beautiful than ever.
Gmail, therefore, is caching the images and hosting them. It is then able to display every image without the users needing to download and reveal their IP addresses or put themselves at risk.
What Does This Mean For Ecommerce Companies?
On balance, this is good news for ecommerce sites and email marketers alike. Gmail has the most consumer users, and by now showing images by default, it’s one less step that the individual has to take to view your email. For design and best practices, this allows more flexibility to do things in images that cannot accomplish in text-based HTML messages. In addition, with this fundamental change, other ISPs are likely to follow — so expect similar announcements from leading email providers in the coming months.
Impact on Open Rates
It is important to understand how this will impact your email program’s open tracking. Since opens are tracked via image downloading, all initial opens will register. Open rates will likely increase slightly because people who opened emails previously, but never downloaded images, will now register as an actual open. However, since the images are cached, repeat opens by the same individual will likely not register. There will be no difference in reporting for Gmail recipients that opened once, or ten times. This is important if you look at these metrics and use them to determine user engagement.
Another important aspect is dynamically generated images that are time sensitive. This may include things like a countdown clock or product images that are replaced after the email goes live. If the user opens that in Gmail once, and goes back to it later in the day, he will see the same image he saw initially until Gmail refreshes the cache — likely every 24 hours.