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Email marketing: Understanding Gmail image caching

Thomas Senne
Senior Director of Global Deliverability

Understandably the email marketing world listens and reacts anytime Google makes a change to the Gmail ecosystem. One of those changes sent ripples through the email marketing blogs the past couple of days, as it was revealed that Gmail was caching images to serve up with the email application.

Let’s start with the basics. What is caching and what is Google trying to accomplish? Image caching happens when an image is saved on a local server. The hope is that the time to display the image will be significantly shortened and the end-user experience will be better. If Google already has an image cached, they can serve it directly from a Google server eliminating the need to go to the original source. We believe this is just another step in the escalating “email experience wars” between Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail.

The initial fears were that senders would no longer be able to track opens, which are traditionally measured with the use of a small pixel embedded in each email. It turns out that not much has changed there. Most all senders use a unique URL that makes an image request back to the sender. The uniqueness of this means the image (even though technically the same for everyone) will remain intact for each recipient. That isn’t changing and means that open rate reporting is unchanged.

There is one scenario that is possibly impacted. Multiple opens of an email could record lower, but this depends on how long Google decides to cache the image. If the image is cached, the request will stay internally to Google instead of going back to the sender. This could result in somewhat lower total opens, but except for very rare instances, the unique opens are the important number. From a tracking and conversion standpoint, there’s nothing to worry about. These metrics are recorded through the use of URLs that haven’t been affected by this change. You should continue to be able to track direct revenue metrics with no change or interruptions.

There are a couple of areas that may see an impact as a result of how Google has currently constructed the image caching. Device and location tracking could be susceptible to some impact since Google now eliminates the original IP address field as they cache the original image. What this means is that as long as the image is cached, the location could show up as coming from the Google image servers in California and not the recipient location as intended. This behavior would go on as long as that image was cached.

In summary, not that many senders will be impacted by these changes. The metrics that might be impacted are not widely used. The user experience in email will most likely be more positive, given email recipients will be seeing email images and designs more quickly.

We will continue to monitor these developments and report back with any changes. If you're a Responsys customer and have questions, please reach out to your customer success manager.

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