03.11.20166 min read

Gmail Image Caching: How Does It Impact Open Rates?

The dust has settled once again—Gmail has innovated the inbox. In December, Google changed they way they display images within email messages. A massive population uses Gmail combined with recent product changes on Gmail have earned the attention (or ire) of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Specifically, Google has implemented a technology commonly called “image caching.” I’ll explain.

On average, Infusionsoft delivers over 93 million email messages to Gmail every month. It represents our number one email domain that we deliver messages to. So, understanding this topic is quite relevant to become a better marketer and to keep your audience happy.

Before Google made this change, when a person received an email containing images, the email software (in this case, Gmail) would simply point to the source where the image was hosted and display it to the reader. Let’s say a user opened the exact same email five minutes later because they had to leave for an appointment. Once they arrive at their destination, the user would open up the email again. In the past, this caused Gmail to download that same image again. Some email service providers would count this activity as two opens on the same email campaign from the same subscriber. With this change from Google, this doesn't happen anymore. Now, when a user opens a message from their Gmail inbox, they download images on their servers and host that image themselves. This means that any future opens of the same image for that recipient will open the downloaded (cached) image. The benefit for Google is they don’t need to use as much resources since they are only downloading the image once. The indirect—but intended—benefit to Gmail users is to deliver a more secure email experience. Secondarily, recipients will no longer need to click that link titled, “Always display images from ...” on emails from senders they trust to display images.  Caching means that content is temporarily stored so it doesn't need to be re-downloaded again. Gmail caches images automatically so they are only accessed once. As a result, Gmail users may also experience faster-loading emails as well as better-looking messages from email senders since images will render properly and consistently. 

Not everyone agrees this change from Google is a good move. Wired outlines some of the privacy concerns of this auto-loading image feature. In a nutshell, as an email user, if images are loaded, it makes it easier for senders to identify that your email address is valid and that you opened their message. This is how email marketing services track whether or not emails were opened for the past 15 years or so. I briefly mentioned the security aspect so allow me expand on that. Spammers --true, real hardcore spammers-- can use image loading as a means for validation that the recipient on the other end of the spam is a real person, thus making the email address more valuable.

Since Gmail downloads the image on behalf of the person, the spammers no longer can confirm whether or not there is a real person viewing the email. If a lot of messages are reported as spam, Google could instantly sever the ability to have those images load for security reasons. However, this concept is why some legitimate email marketers are upset. They used this information to identify who opened the image, where it was opened from and how many times it was opened. The latter, “how many times it was opened,” is referred to as a non-unique open rate. This differs from a unique open rate and what I believe is the key metric at hand. 

Infusionsoft has always reported on unique opens—versus repeat, non-unique opens

Non-unique open rates can be artificially inflated and thus provide a skewed sense of email marketing effectiveness. For example, say you sent an email people and they happened to open it twice. This would produce a non-unique open rate of 200 percent. See the problem? Unique opens, clicks, and click-to-open-rates (CTOR) are the way to go when measuring email marketing effectiveness. Infusionsoft provides this unique open rate metric, as it always has, to ensure our customers have an accurate window into their overall email marketing success.

So, what else does this change mean?

Aside from addressing some of the concerns about open rates, you'll likely see an overall increase of email opens from people using Gmail. This could be a good thing—or it can backfire if you haven't established the trust with the recipient. If someone dislikes how often you land in their inbox they can unsubscribe or even report you for spam. It wouldn't be a bad idea to consider adding relevant images to your email messages knowing that your audience will be more likely to see them.

How should you interpret email opens for the purposes of email marketing and automation?

This change in Gmail should at least give you a strong hint that email opens are less important than previously. Since images are displayed more or less automatically, it means that the recipient isn't necessarily taking decisive action to display your images. So, if you run any sort of automation based only on the open and nothing else, your actions might not be relevant. In the end, these emails represent people, it's possible for them to skim by your email message and accidentally open it, causing your open rate to increase without necessarily intending to open your email. My point is to judiciously interpret your emails opens before presuming that people opened your emails. I hope this has helped inform you about how these changes to Gmail affect you, your audience and your business. Unlike Gmail Tabs, this is more likely to have minimal no adverse effects on your business and may even improve how your emails render for recipients, thus improving brand awareness and sales. For more information on how to view your email statistics from your Infusionsoft account, read this Help Center article. This is a pretty technical topic, but I hope I helped clear it up for you. 

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