Track if an email has been read – does it really work?
Many people want to track and see if an email has been read and – since the demand exists – the Internet is full with lots of email tracking solutions that promise to tell you if your email has been opened & read. In this article we will detail various tracking solutions, their advantages and drawbacks.
How do you track if an email was read
We are not going to debate around the privacy issue of tracking emails. Obviously it is a sensitive subject and our opinion is that you shouldn’t be able to see what happens with an email, once it reached the intended mailbox.
Although there are so many email tracking solutions out there and even many claim to have some sort of a magic formula to track if an email was read, most revolve around one basic idea: insert “something” in your email that will require a server connection (to the tracking provider) when the email is opened.
For example, one can insert a tiny transparent image in an email and make it load from a server URL. When the email is read, the email client retrieves the image from the server, so the tracking provider knows that the email was opened. Other solutions can involve inserting a script that would automatically run & trigger a server connection, when the email was opened.
The problem with the above approach is that it relays on the idea that the email client will automatically open / run the nested object. But most modern email clients disable by default every such object, be it an image or a script, so such a solution can track if an email has been read only if the email receiver actually allows the image to load or the script to run.
Other tracking solutions use email header fields that should theoretically make the receiver’s mail server to send a delivery receipt when the email was delivered. But there are two issues with such email header solutions:
1. most mail servers are configured to ignore this email header field;
2. even if you are lucky to receive such a mail server receipt, it only confirms that the email was delivered and not if it was actually read.
There are also tracking systems that use exploits to track if an email has been read. For example, an email client may mistakenly automatically open an image (linked a server) if the image is inserted using a certain method. But such exploits are designed for specific email clients, so an Outlook exploit will not work on an email read in the Gmail interface and so on. And, even if let’s say you want to track a Gmail email, you simply can’t know if the email receiver reads the email with the Gmail web interface, with Outlook or with the Gmail app for Android. So these tracking solutions are really way too specific to actually work on most cases.
Despite all those claims from email tracking providers, there is no solution that actually works (at least) on most real-life scenarios. They either relay on mail server / client exploits or on manual actions performed by the person reading the email.
There is no bullet proof solution to track if an email has been read. Period.
From our point of view, if you are sending a legitimate email, if its content shows interest to your email recipients and if you want to track and see if it was read, you should simply insert an image linked to your mail server then check your image server access stats to get a read/open report. This tracking solution is friendly enough to your recipients (you don’t have to hide it) and it also leaves the email receiver the option to activate it or not (by downloading images or not).
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