Google’s email tracking on Gmail explained

Whether it’s a marketing email or a message to members of a local community, being able to track emails gives the sender important information on who got the message. Google’s email tracking allows this in Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) accounts, but it isn’t available for every Gmail account.

How do I track an email in Gmail?

Emails can be tracked in Gmail in four main ways:

  1. Read receipts in Google Workspace (which are highly limited and offered to Google’s customers only)
  2. Adding tracking pixels
  3. Measuring link clicks
  4. Using Google Analytics

Google Workspace’s outdated read receipts

First off, the native Google email tracking functionality allows for read receipts, which are facilitated by Gmail itself. These are the main reasons why Google’s read receipts are very limited:

  1. They add awkwardness to email conversations, by implying a read confirmation should be accepted by the reader. That’s counterintuitive to our face-to-face conversations experience, and even to how we deal with read receipts in messaging apps.
  2. Google Workspace’s read receipts are available only to Google customers and must be activated by the organization’s administrator to be available for all members.
  3. Google’s read receipts must be sent on an individual basis and be accepted by the reader when the communication is received. It makes use of the technology complicated, and little reliable.

The best alternative: tracking pixels for email tracking

The second method is to use a tracking pixel. This is a tiny, 1×1-pixel attachment that loads when the recipient clicks on an email. After that, the email client sends a signal to the server which interprets the email as being opened. This is how Mailtrack’s email tracking works.

You can find tracking pixels all over the web in other locations, too. For example, a website with a newsletter may embed a tracking pixel in the sign-up confirmation window so it can track when people successfully sign up.

Measuring link clicks

A third way to track emails is through link clicks. Tracking link clicks won’t let you know if someone opened your email if they don’t click on the link. That’s why most email tracking programs include tracking pixels by default. Link click tracking works by routing the recipient through the tracking program’s servers before sending them to the final destination. 

Using Google Analytics to track emails

Lastly, you could use Google Analytics for email open tracking. However, setting up email tracking this way is a convoluted process, and requires you to use Google Analytics in a way it’s not really intended to be used.

In short, you would be setting up your own tracking pixel image, and embedding it into each sent email. This is how Mailtrack tracks email opens, which takes about a minute to install, compared to setting it up yourself.

But, if you’re dead-set on applying this method yourself, you can read the guide created by Google Developers.

Why is Google’s image policy important for email tracking in Gmail?

In 2013 and 2014, Google made some changes to its image policy in Gmail. Specifically, it started downloading all images on its proxy servers in California. When the recipient would open an email, the image would load from this server, not the original server that the sender used.

Google did this to protect the privacy of Gmail users. Before, tracking pixels could automatically detect the physical location of the recipients. Now, tracking pixels opened in Gmail on the web or on mobile will tell the sender that the recipient is located in California where the Google proxy image servers are. 

In 2019, Google launched another large-scale Gmail update in the form of dynamic email. This allows senders to include forms or surveys that the recipient can interact with inside an email. For example, a hotel chain could let users view open rooms and book a stay without leaving their email.

Dynamic email requires images to load automatically. Users can stop tracking pixels by disabling automatic downloads, but they will also miss out on dynamic email. It looks like Google is giving users an incentive to allow tracking through this policy. 

Common misunderstandings around Gmail’s image policy

After the proxy image server policy came into effect, some people were worried that email tracking wouldn’t work at all anymore. This is not the case. You can still track opens through a tracking pixel, and link tracking still has the same functionality.

Since Google’s proxy servers don’t play any part in link tracking, link clicks can still show the geolocation data of a recipient. That’s why email marketing programs encourage users to focus on getting recipients to click on links to get more data.

Some people were also worried that their email tracker would receive false opens. If Google was now downloading images ahead of time to its own servers, wouldn’t the tracking program think the email was opened? But there’s nothing to worry about on this front. After the change, different people tested this and found that Google’s proxy server doesn’t send false opens when it downloads images.

Future developments in email tracking

We can expect email tracking to become more sophisticated in the future, especially as people have responded positively to interactive email content and dynamic email. Each piece of an interactive email presents another data point to track.

Learn more about Mailtrack for Gmail