This week Google has either gone Grinch on email marketers or given a nice holiday treat to email users -- both is true depending on who you ask.
Gmail has begun automatically displaying images embedded within emails. Previously Gmail users had to click a button to show those images, which protected them from malware being instantly passed to their computer through the image files.
But by doing this, Google is essentially receiving an email's image content to its own computers and then forwarding it to the intended recipients. That masks marketers' view of who's really receiving their emails.
The move also deprives marketers of other data they were collecting through images, such as the approximate location of the user.
Before the image-loading change, email marketing vendors could affix some code to an image that would retrieve recipients' locations when they opened the message. But now that Google opens the message first on its own computers, the location relayed back to marketers would be wherever Google's computers are located. That means a retail marketer won't be able to customize an email to promote a sale at the brick-and-mortar store nearest to each individual customer (at least not those customers opening the email within Gmail's web or mobile apps).
Email marketing vendor Movable Ink said the image-loading change began rolling out late last week and has taken an early look at its impact.
"After analyzing our data since the changes were implemented late last week, 2% – 5% of the average enterprise B2C email marketer's subscriber list is affected by Gmail's changes, since they only affect recipients that open emails through the Gmail.com desktop client, the Android Gmail app, and the iOS Gmail app," the company said in a blog post.
This isn't the first time Google has tripped up email marketers this year. In May Google began quarantining marketers' emails into a separate promotions tab. That change continues to attract criticism for undermining email campaigns' performance, even though the effect a couple months in was negligible.
Click rates falling
Last week email marketing vendor Epsilon reported that email click rates have fallen by 17% from May to October. That sounds low, yet email open rates were the same in October as they were in May, which suggests people were checking out the emails but the contents were not good enough to click on.
Interestingly Gmail's latest move may improve marketers' chances at driving clicks.
"Historically many Gmail users will view an email without enabling images -- which means the open tracking pixel inserting by email service providers also does not load -- along with the images within the email," said Loren McDonald, VP-industry relations at Silverpop, in an email.
Not only were people not seeing the full contents of marketers' emails, but marketers weren't able to see the full number of people seeing their emails. Mr. McDonald said Gmail's large user base "had the biggest impact on reporting" and therefore "open rates for the last several years have been underreported."
Now marketers will have a more accurate count of how many people checked out their emails. However they will only be able to count the first time an email is opened because of the way Google is opening and storing images on its computers. That means marketers won't be able to identify how many times someone revisited their emails, but "very few marketers actually use gross or total opens," Mr. McDonald said.