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Tracking services exist which claim to be able to tell you whether or not someone has opened your email. They're only half right.

Has anyone tried www.---.com? It's a free email tracking service. How good and reliable is it? Is it safe to use?

That's actually a comment that was posted to one of my articles on whether or not you could tell if email has been opened or read by the recipient.

The short answer is that there's really only one email tracking technique currently in use, and it only works maybe half the time. In other words, it's not all that helpful.

Let me explain how it works, and you'll see what I mean.

When I mention email tracking, most folks think of the "Return Receipt" option that some mail programs display. The intent of that function was exactly what you might expect: an automated email back indicating that the email you sent had been opened.

It doesn't work.

The reason it doesn't work is simple: it requires the cooperation of the email program being used to read the email. Because of abuse by spammers and others, almost all email programs now either completely ignore Return Receipt requests or require that you enable the feature before Return Receipts are acted on. And no one turns it on.

With "Return Receipt" rendered pretty much useless, the technique used today is to include an image - often an invisible image - that is fetched from a web page when the email is displayed. Then, using the web server logs on which those images are hosted, the sender can see who's opened and displayed their email.

"But if the image is not displayed, then the email cannot be tracked. It's just that simple."

There are two very large problems with this technique:

  • It works only with HTML or "Rich text" email.

  • It works only if users have "display images" enabled.

That last point is particularly telling. Most email programs now default to not displaying images in email. The recipient has to enable it, often by adding the sender's email address to the list of "trusted" senders.

But if the image is not displayed, then the email cannot be tracked. It's just that simple.

Put another way:

  • If your email is plain text, there's no way to automatically track whether it's been opened or read. Period.

  • If your email is in HTML, then only those recipients who've enabled images can be tracked. The rest appear to have never opened your email, even though they may have.

There are many tracking services out there that gloss over this fact. They'll claim lots of success, but it all boils down to this: you cannot tell with any certainty that someone hasn't read your email. They may have opened it and read it without images turned on, defeating any tracking ability.

And even if you do get notification for those folks with images turned on, all that tells you is that the email was displayed - it does not tell you that the email was actually read.

The only truly accurate way to track whether your email is being read is simply to note whether the recipient acted on it by telling you, by replying, by clicking a link in the email or by doing something else that can only be attributed to having read that email.

Article C3165 - October 1, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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18 Comments
Patty
October 7, 2007 7:24 PM

I use the program MSGTAG and have found it very useful. I use the paid version and I highly recommend it. It is a rare thing that I send an email using MSGTAG where I don't get a notification back that it was opened (not necessarily *read* as was pointed out.) Of course these are not life and death instances anyway...I just want to know that someone received my email in their mailbox, whether or not they choose to reply. Fortunately most of the folks that I email, including tech support folks, all seem to use HTML or have "Display images" turned on.

Duex Tremps
October 12, 2007 12:52 PM

thank you very much i was wondering about you you didn't send me email yesterday

Kim
January 2, 2008 1:45 PM

If you do not open an email that has a Return Receipt attached to it, but you forward it to another email address and then open it, does it still show as being opened?

sergio gioia
January 11, 2008 2:44 PM

if a postemaster tells me that my e-mail did not get tru due to code 5.5.0 then i try again with no message. does this mean my e-mail got tru this time?

Rick
March 2, 2008 10:41 PM

Is there a program that tracks chat rooms visited by entering a user name or email address?

faizer
March 12, 2008 11:53 AM

Sir, i have lost my both hotmail account at once in the night as usual i checked mail and closed and next day morning when i check its say email or password invalid my both hotmail account say error message how do i find out what happened to my both Hotmail accounts?

Linda
May 7, 2008 7:12 PM

Actually, this is all so refreshing!...so many thanks. I just used one of the internet email tracking services ( shall keep it anonymous)to track an impt. email of mine last weekend. I first rec'd a notice from this tracking service indicating my email was being read and further details to come forth...about three minutes later... I received another email from the tracking service: this time showing my email "read duration" time was: 00:00:01! Terrible! It crushed me! I have been devastated thinking my email wasn't read at all...I thought, maybe, it was immediately deleted when the person saw my name???! This email tracking agency promises to send updates everytime a tracked email is reread...mine was never reread had no updates ever!...never received any more about it then just those initial two emails announcing my email was first being opened with a N/A for the tracking time and second being read with a duration of one second flat! Thanks to this article here that these email tracking services online aren't that reliable! Now I can finally have some hope that the party I sent it to did read it, even though I was informed my email was only read for one second, this really warms my heart in this particular case...thanks much!

Ginger
September 3, 2008 7:02 PM

I probably use the same tracking service as the above and I can say that just because it reads "duration" as a few seconds, if you look closely at the times the email was opened, you can sometimes see that it was actually up on the screen longer, therefore read longer. The service may just be tracking the initial "click" to open the email. Mine has worked pretty well, but not well enough.

barb
October 8, 2008 7:56 AM

The Pointofmail.com service has seemed to be very faithful at returning information as to whether an email has been sent, recived, read, when, where, and how many times it was opened. This is very informative and it also tells you if it was forwarded and to whom. Wow....what do you think about this program????

angie
February 4, 2009 8:20 AM

hello..i've got pointofmail and guess what..i just got a very snooty email from someone saying they have found out i was spying by having a program that allows me to see when they opened their mail..now i've lost a friend...so actually how reliable is pointofmail...and how could a person find out that their email is tracked?? i know that once when i sent one to myself and then forwarded it, at the end of my name it said pointofmail??? of course i can't get ahold of anyone at pointofmail..

martin
February 7, 2009 7:43 AM

I think email tracking is well known technique now a days, even individuals have started making scripts that can track emails. I just found a similar website which does not belong to any professional organization http://www.epagecollection.com/ and also free.

I'll just keep saying it: there is no way to reliably track whether email has been opened or read. None.
- Leo
07-Feb-2009

Ken
October 5, 2010 9:43 AM

I have been using a service from time to time, I have tested it. I use it mostly when I am sending important Email to my daughters that "you've got money". I have called them on the phone and asked them not to open it till I send it. I have sent both with a notice to them that it will send back to me and a silent notification, all worked like they were suppose too.... however Leo is correct, 1) they have HTML mail, 2) images will open in their mail. The Ip address locate was very close, with in 5 miles, that's pretty good, butttt there is still no proof that a person has actually read it! All they did was click on it, I do use it sometimes to figure out if my mail is being read in one city or another, this sometimes helps when dealing with Ebay and the person claims they are in one city but their Ip keeps showing up very far from that city, but the best way to know where they are is to insist on a phone call.... you call them and only on Land Line, the area code will then have to be correct.

David
October 5, 2010 11:53 AM

I used to use MSGTAG, which still seems to be around on http://www.msgtag.com/home/
I had the free version, which also depended on the recepient having images downloaded by default but, as has been said, e-mail clients, in the main, don't do that these days. I don't know how their new, paid-for version works (if differently). Perhaps someone could enlighten me. I see they are still showing the free version, despite my receiving numerous mails from them saying that it would not work any more and pushing to upgrade. Odd

David
October 5, 2010 12:31 PM

Re previous: October 5, 2010 11:53 AM
Just experimented with MSTAG again and the free version does still work, providing images ("remote content" in Thunderbird) are downloaded. Sent a mail to myself and
got a notification back that it had been opened. Seems that the developers were a little economical with the truth when they inferred that it would no longer work and I needed to upgrade! Because their servers are still working, I would guess the "latest" paid-for version still depends on an image being opened but perhaps someone can put me straight on that.

Glenn P.
October 5, 2010 9:10 PM

The hideous irony in all of this -- d*mn to the spammers! -- is that there is a perfectly legitimate and valid need for the "Read Receipt" (what Leo calls the "Return Receipt", perhaps confusing it with the US Postal Service postcard item of that name) functionality that was originally built into E-Mail. By flooding us with unwanted Spam and clogging the E-Mail system with useless traffic, they have rendered the Receipt system not only useless to us, but (what is far worse) a weapon to be used by the spammers themselves! Grrrrr!

jun tariman
December 21, 2010 12:32 AM

I've tried MailTracking and it's free version works for me. Check it out @ http://www.mailtracking.com/

I did some notes about it on my blog: http://wp.me/p8C1e-1we

Like any mail tracking service, this too is unreliable as it relies on people having pictures and or remote content enabled, which most people do not. In this case you need to send your email through their service, so that they can modify your email to add tracking links and related. Looking at their terms of service they also have the right to add advertising to your email. Yuck.
Leo
21-Dec-2010

Jacob. M
December 27, 2012 11:52 AM

I've used the service GetNotify.com for email tracking for a long time and it works most of the time. There are occasions when it doesn't work when recipient has blocked images, but this is usually not the case when I send email to my friends or family members. I've also tried sending emails with return receipt confirmation, but almost all email services like hotmail, yahoo, gmail etc do not even ask for return receipts from email recipients.

Nicole
January 19, 2013 7:17 AM

Try ReadNotify.com. It works almost all the time and is scary some of the info it tracks.

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