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 through Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) accounts, but it isn’t available to every Gmail account.

How do I track an email in Gmail?

Emails can be tracked in Gmail in four  main ways:

  1. Read receipts through Google Workspace
  2. Adding tracking pixels
  3. Measuring link clicks
  4. Using Google Analytics

Creating Google Workspace read receipts

First off, the native Google email tracking functionality allows for read receipts, which are facilitated by Gmail itself. Unfortunately, this only works if set up by an Admin of a Google Workspace organization.

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 the 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. Now, only tracking link clicks won’t let you know if someone opened your email if they didn’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 can use Google Analytics for email open tracking yourself. 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 invisible tracking pixel image, embedded 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.

Does Gmail have email tracking?

Yes, Google Tracks emails in Gmail, but only for some users—Gmail read receipts are only available to Google Workspace accounts. 

Furthermore, the Google Workspace administrator needs to enable read receipts before anyone in the organization can use them. Members of a Google Workspace organization aren’t able to set these up themselves.

Also, Google may ask the recipient if they would like to send the read receipt back to you. That means it’s not an automatic read receipt. Keep this in mind if you don’t want your recipient to know that you are tracking emails.

Can you track someone by Gmail?

Gmail's old read receipts

Gmail allows email tracking by using the methods listed above, Gmail doesn’t tell users the location of other Gmail users. Mailtrack does not track user locations, primarily to protect privacy.

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 see 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 the 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 went 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 the 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

Google wants to respect the privacy of Gmail users, but it also wants to promote a growing economy and many companies depend on 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