Image Caching: What’s New in Gmail

The elves over at Google have been busy fine-tuning and shaking up Gmail this year, surprising us with tabbed inboxes over the summer and cached images earlier this month.  Account holders and marketers alike seemed to have adapted to the tabbed inbox, despite still-whimpering cries-of-foul from some corners of the industry. As we discovered in this post, some users prefer the tidier presentation, and are now more engaged with marketing emails.

What about image caching, though? According to Gmail’s official blog, the change was made to expedite rendering and improve security. Prior to the modifications, Gmail asked users whether and how they wanted images displayed. Now, images are displayed automatically and served through Gmail’s proxy servers. This means that Gmailers won’t have to click those “display images below” or “always display images from…” links again. (Those who prefer to authorize external image display can choose this option under the Settings tab, which happens to be the default for anyone who previously selected “ask before displaying external content.” Either way, it doesn’t prevent their images from being cached.)

As usual, security experts are speculating while marketers and ESPs are scrambling. Should they be? What do the changes mean?

Responsys feared caching would impact senders’ ability to track opens, but ultimately determined there wasn’t much of a change, thanks in part to unique track-back URLs. They, along with MailChimp, also concluded that while caching lowers senders’ ability to track re-opens, unique-opens analytics will be more accurate. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that if users weren’t clicking either of the ‘display images’ links, those opens were invisible anyway.)

For those involved in geo-targeting, device targeting, or serving up real-time content such as countdown timers, maps to the nearest location, or social feeds, this change effectively breaks their m.o. If you’re Movable Ink, that news should be distressing, even if – according to Litmus research – 97% of email recipients only open email marketing messages once.

When it comes to Gmail, there‘s not much in the way of work-arounds. There will be a drop in the total number of clicks, geo-location and user-agent stats. The latter two may be skewed or unusable altogether. Despite the gloom, there are a few bright spots: 1) this is the perfect opportunity to optimize open-time personalization, 2) your subscribers are going to have a better experience, and 3) Gmailers who link their address to IMAP account won’t be affected by the changes.

We’ll update you as we learn more. If you’ve noticed significant changes in your data, or have insights you’d like to share, please comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

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