Last week, Google made a change to it’s widely used webmail platform Gmail: instead of asking if you want to “show images” in emails, Gmail will automatically display them by default instead of asking permission. This particular behavior is also seen in the other two webmail titans (Yahoo and Microsoft), as well as a common feature in mail clients like Outlook. Why aren’t images loaded by default? Primarily because when you open that email full of graphics and you actually want to see them, the mail client (or webpage) makes a request to the server hosting the images, which is usually the same server that sent the email in the first place.
If that sounds like a sneaky way to confirm that you’ve opened a particular email, that’s because it is. This process reveals certain data about the recipient, including date and time of opening, what browser or mail client you are using to view the email, as well as some rough geographical data about your location, based upon your IP address. So why is Google loading images by default? It’s because now they are caching the images to their own server, and then showing them to you, which effectively acts as a proxy between you and the sender, and blinds many marketers who were relying on the image requests to track you.
What this means for you:
Whether you realized it or not, your email client’s annoying tendency to not show you images in emails was actually in your best interests. Because displaying images required you to actively “opt in” by choosing to view the graphics, if that email was sent by a marketer, you sent them a nice packet of data and a positive affirmation that you saw the email, whether you intended to or not. With Gmail’s image caching, some of that data is no longer being unwittingly sent by its customers, however, notice that I wrote “some.” The more clever marketers out there (including Mailchimp, the service I use for my own email) tag email images individually, so they can still track opens, as Gmail still has to load the image to its servers before showing it to you. In my case, this is merely so I can tell if anyone is reading my newsletters, but even that one point of data is still valuable information to email marketers, and you can bet they will find other ways to track your online activity.