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I’ve seen conflicting opinions on Gmail’s new image policy—the popular service will now be showing email images by default, rather than requiring used to click “display images” at the top of each received message.

Ryan Tate at Wired says that this will be a boon for email marketers:

The new setup also means that people and companies who send you email will be able to find out when you’ve opened and read their messages, because loading these images requires a call back to the sender’s server. That said, the sender still has to know how to rig their emails to take advantage of this, and that means that sophisticated corporations are far more likely to take advantage of this privacy hole than your friends and relatives. They’ll have to evade Google’s filters for “suspicious” content, and you’ll have to check your Gmail over the web — not via a local client — for this change to impact you. But it’s an important development.

This would seem to make sense were it not for this contradictory explanation of the new image policy from Ron Amadeo at ArsTechnica:

Embedded images will now be saved by Google, and the e-mail content will be modified to display those images from Google’s cache, instead of from a third-party server. E-mail marketers will no longer be able to get any information from images—they will see a single request from Google, which will then be used to send the image out to all Gmail users. Unless you click on a link, marketers will have no idea the e-mail has been seen.

To get the definitive answer on this issue, I went to the authority: MailChimp. As it turns out, both Wires and Ars got at least part of the story wrong. MailChimp contends that this change will both help and hurt their customers:

In Gmail’s announcement today, they said image caching allows them to securely turn on images by default. Image caching still lowers our ability to track repeat opens, but turning those images on means we’ll be more accurate when tracking unique opens. At least, theoretically it should work that way.

By leaving images turned off, Gmail has been allowing subscribers to open emails without downloading our tracking pixel, so those opens were invisible to us. If Gmail is going to display images automatically, those previously invisible opens should suddenly become visible.

So, as with most things in tech, this is about trade-offs. The policy change in Gmail is helping marketers by giving more information about who is reading their emails, but less information about unique opens.

Of course email marketing is ultimately about driving sales, traffic, or some other action outside of reading the emails themselves. These conversion metrics will remain unaffected as services like MailChimp will still provide unique tracking URLs for each email recipient.

I’m curious to see if this policy in Gmail is followed by other webmail providers like Hotmail and Yahoo. If so, we could see the entire email marketing industry deemphasize the unique opens metric as it may become a very unreliable measurement.