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How Email Tracking Works, and How To Prevent It (2024 Guide)

By James LePage
 on June 10, 2022

How Email Tracking Works, and How To Prevent It (2024 Guide)

By James LePage
 on June 10, 2022

Most people can see when you open and view their emails. For example, most people in my company use MixMax, Hubspot and/or Superhuman to send and manage emails. Even for those that aren't for marketing or sales, we're able to see exactly when and where emails are opened.

😡

*I know you read that email at exactly 2:32pm, and again at 4:56pm, Jeff! I need those proofs asap!*

I personally use MixMax with Google Workspace's Gmail to track and manage all of my emails.

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I can see that this email was opened once, at 3:31pm, on a mobile device. There's more detailed data in my dashboard, where I can see exactly where this email was opened, alongside additional data.

So, first, how does email tracking work? And, second, how to I make sure people can't track my email opens / views / locations?

There's really only 1 way that all of these tools track your email usage.

They include a tiny, 1x1px image that's basically invisible.

In this email below, there's only text content, yet Gmail still has blocked the email from loading an image. Even if I choose to "display images below", there won't be any noticeable change.

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That's because this email has included an email tracking image, with the sole purpose of getting loaded. And that's exactly how these tools can understand where, when, and on what device an email was loaded.

This 1x1 image is specific to an email. For example, the location of this image might be tracking.emailserver.com/email/unique-id.

The email tracking software knows that an email is "opened" if that specific image requested from that server, and loaded. When loaded, the server tracks (typically) the IP address, user agent, and time that that image was loaded via the HTTP GET request. From that, we can get the time, place, and device that an email was opened on.

In fact, here's what's typically logged when a tracking image (this example is using cleardot.gif) is loaded:

isotropic-2022-06-10-at-13-15-48

When loading it sends several details to the server, such as my client, user agent, and time of opening. The software then provides that to me in a pretty interface.

However, Gmail proxies the loading of this image through Google servers, meaning that the only usable information the tracker is getting is that I've "opened" the email.

Now, the question is, "how to stop email tracking"?

And that's easy. Simply block the email client from automatically loading images.

On Gmail, go to all settings, and under the images section, choose "ask before displaying external images".

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The same can be done for many other email clients. The only issue is that if you want to load other images, some clients will force all to load, meaning that the tracking pixel will load too. This is the case for Gmail, but other clients like Outlook will let you load assets on a per-image basis.

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Article By
James LePage
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James LePage is the founder of Isotropic, a WordPress education company and digital agency. He is also the founder of CodeWP.ai, a venture backed startup bringing AI to WordPress creators.
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