For years, Gmail turned off inline images by default, requiring users to manually display them if they so desired. That changed Thursday, when Google announced it would serve Gmail images through its own secure proxy servers: Inline photos will be displayed automatically without posing a security risk to recipients. Inadvertently or not, the rollout of this feature gives Google an upper hand against email marketers.
When companies send marketing blasts to customers, they can collect a gamut of information by affixing images with unique identifiers. That includes location, device type, and the date and time the email was viewed. Though users could avoid being tracked by choosing not to load these images hosted on third-party servers, today's news means Google is taking away companies' ability to measure the success of their email marketing campaigns. Instead of tracking by images, the only metric they have remaining is whether users click on links embedded in their emails.
Marketers are already miffed about Gmail Tabs, introduced back in May. A way to help users prioritize important emails, the feature hid company and marketing emails under a secondary "promotions" tab, and emails from social networks were given the same treatment with a "social" tab. This change prompted a slew of companies to send emails urging users to move their marketing messages to the primary tab. A study by marketing firm Epsilon found click rates for Gmail declined in June—and have yet to recover.