What is email tracking and why should you be concerned?
Email is a technology that emerged in the early 1970s alongside the ARPANET, the forerunner of today's Internet. It's now over 50 years old. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent or replace it with other communication methods (such as instant messaging, social networks, and web communication platforms).
But it's still with us and hasn't lost ground: over 90% of Internet users use email. What’s more, email has evolved significantly. For example, it’s now possible to include media files and format emails using HTML.
All of this makes it an attractive and effective marketing channel. And where there's marketing, there are tracking tools and methods to improve its effectiveness. That’s why it's so important for users to understand the answers to these questions: "What is email tracking?", "What is an email tracker?", and "How can I protect myself from unwanted tracking?"
What is email tracking?
Email tracking is a way of gathering information on how recipients interact with emails. Tracking can show when emails were opened, what browser and device were used, whether recipients clicked any links, and even their approximate location at that time.
How does email tracking work?
Pixel tracking (web beacons)
At the core of most email tracking systems lies pixel tracking. This method involves embedding an invisible image (typically 1x1 pixel) into the body of the email.
How it works: when the email is opened, the recipient's email client or browser attempts to load all images in the message, including the pixel. Once the pixel is requested from the server, an event log and associated user data is recorded. This mechanism is used to track email opens.
Another common tracking method is link wrapping or modifying links in the email.
How it works: The link provided does not lead directly to the resource, but to a tracking server. When the recipient clicks the link, the server records the event and then redirects the user to the intended resource.
Attachment download counters
Some advanced tracking systems can even monitor the downloading of email attachments.
How it works: Similar to link wrapping, attachments can be wrapped in a special way to log their download.
When an email is sent, mail servers exchange metadata. In some cases, this data can be used for tracking.
How it works: The sender can request confirmation that the email has been delivered or read. If the recipient's mail system supports this feature (and if it's enabled), the sender will receive an automatic notification.
Who uses email tracking most?
Email tracking is widely used by various professional groups and organizations, as it can provide valuable insight into recipient behavior. Here are some of the primary users of this technology:
Marketers: Especially those involved in email marketing. They don’t ask “what is an email tracker”, they use this marketing tool with robust analytics to analyze the effectiveness of advertising campaigns, measure audience engagement, and determine what types of content resonate best with recipients.
Salespeople and sales managers: Email tracking software helps them determine when potential clients open proposals or business offers, allowing them to optimize follow-up email communication.
Recruiters: HR professionals and recruiters can track whether candidates are opening their messages and responding to job offers.
Journalists and PR specialists: They use email tracking tools to assess the traction their press releases, articles, or other materials are getting.
Business analysts: They use tracking to study user behavior and optimize subscriber engagement and retention strategies.
Event organizers: Email tracking allows them to monitor who of the invitees has viewed information about an upcoming event.
Service providers: They use it to ensure that important notifications about bills or service changes have been received by clients.
What are the benefits of email tracking?
Email tracking allows senders to gain significant advantages in business and professional endeavors, but at the cost of compromising the privacy of email recipients. Let's explore the reasons for its use.
Increased ROI from marketing campaigns
Tracking evaluates recipient engagement with promotional emails, enabling professionals to assess campaign effectiveness, fine-tune mailing strategy, and identify potential shifts in marketing efforts. Specifically, a sender can see which subject lines result in more email reads, which content results in more link clicks within the email, or, conversely, which lead to increased spam rates. Moreover, this marketing tool can be leveraged for audience segmentation and identifying those recipients who respond most positively to emails.
Optimizing client communication
Knowing when a client reads an email allows you to better plan subsequent interactions with them. Additionally, knowing which emails (or their parts) are most appealing to a client can, in theory, lead to the creation of more targeted and relevant offers.
Understanding the interests of the target audience
By observing which topics or offers generate the most interest, one can tailor future content to the preferences of the target audience.
Effective sales management
Communication with a prospect can be prioritized when a salesperson sees that the prospect is consistently opening sales proposals. And by knowing what materials the client has already viewed, the sales representative can conduct the dialogue more effectively.
In legal practices and certain business transactions, it might be necessary to confirm that an email was not only sent but also read by the recipient. Therefore, in certain cases, having a read receipt can serve as evidence in disputes or legal proceedings.
Efficiency of PR campaigns
PR professionals can track how journalists or influencers react to their press releases and news hooks. In this context, tracking helps eliminate uncertainty: is the lack of response because the email wasn't read, or because the topic wasn't of interest?
Drawbacks of email tracking
If email tracking is a boon for senders, what is email tracking for recipients? There are definitely potential risks – let's take a closer look at them:
Unlike ad tracking, which is often presented as anonymized (though not always being so), email tracking is directly linked to personal information: the recipient's email address. Typically, the recipient has no way of knowing in advance that the email they have received contains tracking tools. As such, the use of email tracking without the explicit consent of the recipient can be seen as an invasion of privacy.
Some email services and apps block trackers, making it impossible to obtain accurate information about whether the email was read. There's also the opposite scenario: an email client such as Gmail might automatically load tracking images into the email, giving false signals that the email has been opened.
Security risks and malware
Loading images and using redirects from external, uncontrollable domains is a somewhat risky activity. In the future, these domains could start delivering malicious content instead of a pixel, and redirect links could lead to a completely different destination than originally intended.
Negative perception and loss of trust
If your contacts learn that you are using email tracking without their consent, they may lose trust in you, which could negatively impact your relationship with them.
Technology dependency and overvaluing data
Over-reliance on email tracking data can lead to decisions being made based solely on this information, at the expense of other aspects of interactions with clients or partners.
Most email tracking tools cost money.
Regulatory issues and legal restrictions
In some countries or regions, there are legal restrictions on tracking user actions without their explicit consent, posing legal risks for companies.
Information available through email tracking
Email tracking is a technology that allows email senders to track various parameters of the recipient's interaction with the sent message. Let's take a closer look at the data that can be extracted using it.
It confirms that the recipient has opened the email and provides the date and time of receipt.
Multiple views: Tracking the number of times an email has been opened. This can indicate the recipient's interest in or the importance of the content.
Geolocation: When the email is opened, you can determine the recipient’s approximate location based on their IP address.
Device and platform used
Device type: The specific device — be it a smartphone, tablet, or desktop — used to read the email, as well as the recipient's operating system and email client.
Interaction with content
Link clicks: If the email contains hyperlinks, email tracking allows you to monitor which specific links the recipient clicked.
Response to attachments
Access to attached files: If there's a file or document attached to the email, you can track whether it’s been opened or downloaded.
Replies and forwarding
Forwarding tracking: If the email has been forwarded to another recipient, some tracking systems can record this.
Campaign reports: With mass mailings, you can aggregate data on various metrics (open rate, click-through rate, etc.) and compare the effectiveness of different campaigns against each other.
How email tracking affects user privacy
Now it’s time to explore the problems with email trackers and the reasons why recipients might want to fight them.
Invasion of privacy
The emails in your mailbox are rightfully yours. It stands to reason that no one else should have access to them. But the companies that send you emails can learn when, where, and how you read them. This can make you feel like you're being watched all the time.
Distortion of communication
Knowing that you're being tracked might subconsciously deter you from opening an email or clicking a link, even if it would have been useful or interesting.
Security and malicious actors
Trackers can be exploited by bad actors to determine when and where you read an email, which could be a starting point for phishing or other fraudulent attacks.
Sending an email with a tracker without your consent violates your right to privacy. This is ethically wrong and may have legal consequences.
Starting point for further communication
The mere fact that you've opened an email could be a signal to the sender that it's an opportune time to continue communicating with you. For example, to call you or send you another email.
How can you protect yourself from email tracking?
Email marketing can certainly pose a threat to your privacy. However, you have the tools and means to protect yourself.
Disable automatic image loading
Most modern email clients automatically download images embedded in emails. By turning off this feature, you block email read tracking.
Use specialized tools
There are plugins and browser extensions, such as Ugly Email or PixelBlock, that help detect and block hidden trackers in emails.
Choose your email service carefully
Many security-focused email services automatically block email trackers. ProtonMail and Tutanota are examples of such services that prioritize user privacy.
Delete cookies regularly
Read privacy policies
Use an ad blocker
When we talk about email tracking, we often refer to hidden pixels or images that load when an email is opened. This loading alerts the sender that the email has been read. Ad blockers, configured to block trackers, can prevent such images from loading automatically, protecting your privacy. Ad blockers also prevent the creation of a profile based on your interests and overall web behavior.
Use temporary email services or private email relays
A temporary email is an email address valid for a short period of time and automatically deleted after its expiration. Messages sent to you after the mailbox is deleted won't be delivered. And with no emails, there's no tracking.
Temporary email services help protect your main email account when a website requires email verification, but you don't want to receive endless newsletter emails or you’re not sure if your data will remain confidential and not fall into the hands of, say, spammers.
Private email relay addresses are addresses that do not reveal your primary mailbox but forward all incoming correspondence to it. They exist for an extended period of time. If, at some point, you realize that the private relay address is no longer carrying useful information and only receiving spam, you can disable the forwarding or delete the address altogether. Private relay services may offer additional tracking protection features.
Use VPN services
By using a VPN, users mask their real IP address, replacing it with the IP address of the VPN server. This means that the tracker will register the IP address of the VPN server, not the user's actual IP address. While this measure won't protect against tracking per se, it does prevent the sender from accessing the most sensitive data — your location.
Additionally, VPN encrypts all of the user's Internet traffic, adding an extra layer of security and making data interception virtually impossible.
Some VPN services, like AdGuard VPN, offer the ability to select a DNS server for domain name resolution. By choosing a privacy-focused DNS service, you'll block any interactions with domains known for tracking.
We recommend that you regularly use a VPN, an ad blocker, and temporary addresses for one-off registrations. These measures will significantly reduce email tracking and the amount of spam you receive.
AdGuard anti email tracking tools
AdGuard Ad Blocker
AdGuard Ad Blocker is not just about blocking ads. It also provides advanced tracking protection. This ensures that tracking pixels or hidden images in emails are effectively blocked, preventing senders from knowing when you've opened or read their emails. AdGuard's constantly updated filters ensure that even the latest tracking methods are thwarted, giving you peace of mind every time you check your inbox.
AdGuard VPN helps mask your true IP address by routing your internet connection through a secure server. When it comes to email tracking, some trackers can gather information about your location from your IP address. By using AdGuard VPN, the tracker would only see the IP address of the VPN server, thus keeping your true location hidden. In addition, AdGuard VPN encrypts your internet traffic, providing an extra layer of security against any potential data snoopers or cyber threats.
Temporary email services
Temporary email services are a smart solution for those who want to register on platforms without exposing themselves to unwanted tracking. While AdGuard doesn't directly offer its own temporary email service, we recognize the essential role they play in protecting user privacy. For those interested, our recent blog post outlines a curated list of reputable temporary email providers to consider.
Now that you've unraveled the mystery of "what is email tracking" and understood how to protect yourself from intrusive tracking, we hope that you'll navigate wisely. Rest assured, AdGuard is here to help you every step of the way.