Are my open rates a lie?: false opens in gmail

Posted on: August 18, 2022

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Category: Prospecting

Are my open rates a lie?: False opens in Gmail

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How to find out if Gmail has been inflating your open rates, how it might affect your email campaigns, and what you can do about it.

Our open rates are amazing.

The average across all industries is 21.5%, according to Campaign Monitor. But our average since 2018 is over 31%. However, we’ve recently discovered that those open rates could be inflated. Gmail has been triggering false opens.

Email Service Provider Gmass reports that this has been happening since May 2018 – and it could be affecting your open rates.

But in the great words of Douglas Adams: Don’t panic.

We’re here to help, and take a look at how this could affect your email marketing campaigns. Can you trust your open rates anymore? How inflated could they be? And what can you do about it?

How to spot false opens in Gmail

The first step in dealing with false opens is to work out how to spot them. Gmass noticed a large portion of their opens being assigned to the same User Agent. This is how they realised something was wrong.

The User Agent is:

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/42.0.2311.135 Safari/537.36 Edge/12.246 Mozilla/5.0

They realised this User Agent was false as it was being used across many Google IP addresses.

Another red flag was that these emails were being opened seconds after they were sent. When was the last time you had time to open an email seconds after it arrived in your inbox?

Is the Google Image Proxy causing false opens?

If you know a thing or two about the technical details of email opens, you might think the cause could be the Google Image Proxy (aka Gmail tracking pixel) causing the false opens.

The way that Google tracks open rates relies on the User Agent downloading a unique one-pixel image via a proxy operated by Google, known as the Google Image Proxy. The reason for this? Google introduced this to stop companies from knowing “the details of the open, such as the location and device used to open the email”.

But it would still show an Email Service Provider if the email was opened – so you can still check your open rates.

We’re not saying that email opens using the Google Image Proxy is a false open. In fact, most of them seem to be real opens, so it’s not the Google Image Proxy contributing to the issue. Instead, the false opens are being attributed to the User Agent mentioned above.

What else could be causing the false opens?

As it stands, it looks like this is a problem caused by Gmail itself – rather than a mistake or error. They have been triggering opens using a bot. Why would they do this?

One running theory is that Google is randomly testing senders to ensure the emails you send have working links. This means they’re opening your emails to check and immediately triggering an open.

As it stands, this is only happening in Gmail, other mail recipients are a-okay. It won’t happen if you send it to a Gmail address and then that’s opened in a different email platform e.g. Outlook or Apple Mail. But we can’t control which mail recipient our customers use.

How could false open rates affect my email campaign?

We did the maths so you don’t have to.

We took a look at our own Sopro dataset to work out how many opens could be false, across our campaigns.

Since May 2018, we’ve sent over 42 million emails across all our campaigns. That’s 12 million prospects engaged and 14 million opens – but how many of those opens were real?

We worked out what might be false opens by seeing how quickly emails were being opened, like we said before, most people aren’t opening emails seconds after they arrive in their inbox. We split our opens into two different categories:

  1. Suspicious opens = emails opened in under 60 seconds
  2. Non-Suspicious opens = emails opened after 60 seconds

We pulled all of our data from the beginning of May 2018, as that’s when the issue is thought to have begun. From the 14.191 million opens, we flagged:

  • 2 million as “Suspicious opens”
  • 11 million as “Non-suspicious opens”

The average open rate in total was 31.36% but if we minus the “Suspicious opens”, that drops down to 26.89%.

That might seem like a lot – your email campaign open rates could be going down by 5% but consider that it is probably less than that.

Bare in mind:

We can’t know for certain what percentage of emails this issue affects. Some people really do open their emails straight away. But this initial analysis is a good starting point and we’re working hard to get more data on “false-open-gate”, to help you to manage your email campaigns even more effectively.

What can you do?

It’s worth taking your open rate stats “with a pinch of salt”, for the time being. If your emails are being opened in Gmail, you may have to deal with an inflated open rate. But open rates aren’t everything. If you’re generating leads and making sales from your email campaigns, then you must be doing something right!

If you want to find out more about running a successful email campaign, book a demo with us today. Sopro can help you to create a campaign that will see your sales grow.

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