Google's latest Gmail tweak makes viewing photos in Gmail easier for you—and the process of tracking you via emailed images much more difficult for marketers and advertisers.

Google on Thursday updated its Gmail service so that you'll never have to click that pesky “Display images below” link again. Gmail will now automatically display images in email, the catch being that Google will host those images on its own servers. Prior to the change, most emailed images would be loaded from third-party servers—often enough, those of marketers.

In a blog post, Gmail product manager John Rae-Grant described the change as a way to better secure your email since Google will now scan photos and graphics for known viruses or malware before displaying them. The service is rolling out to Gmail on desktop today and should make its way to Gmail apps for Android and iOS sometime next year.

Lowering The Boom On Marketers

But by filtering these photos through its own servers, however, Google may have shut out the use of Web bugs or beacons—bits of code that lets an advertiser know that an email has been opened. Marketers use images as beacons because, at least until now, services like Gmail would load such images from an advertiser’s own web server. Any image can be a beacon, even an invisible one no more than a pixel wide.

Rae-Grant likens the image proxying to Gmail’s other protective features like default https access, suspicious activity detection, and free two-step verification. Marketers, however, are already a bit anxious about the change. At Econsultancy, a publisher of online business advice, email-marketing expert Philip Storey noted the following likely consequences for his audience:

  1. Marketers won't be able to tell whether you've opened an email for the second or subsequent time
  2. Web bugs won't report reliable geolocations for opened emails, as they'll pick up the IP addresses of Gmail servers, not recipients
  3. Countdown clocks sent as animated images won't show the right time if email is opened a second or subsequent time
  4. Analytics will only track the first time an email is opened
  5. Marketers won't be able to update or change images once they're sent out

Others put on a brave face. “It is important to remember that images still have the same impact for email marketers as always,” Matt Hayes, co-founder of Kickdynamic, told EConsultancy. “When users go back and re-open the email for the second time the same image is also displayed as normal. The user experience remains unaffected.”

Lead image via Flickr user FixtheFocus, CC 2.0; Gmail image courtesy of Google