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It's very common to want confirmation that an email has been delivered or read. In an age of spam it's simply not possible with any accuracy.

In my business, it is critical I know that emails I have sent were received & opened. The emails are time sensitive and contain deadline dates for the information requested.

I have searched & asked questions... but all that has been futile.

I am certain I am not the only person unable to find an answer to this problem.

That's because there is no answer to this problem.

And you're quite right, you're not the only person wishing otherwise.

But wishing - or even the statements of some companies that claim to be able to do it - doesn't make it so.

I'll explain why.

I want to start by making this very clear: there is no reliable way to tell with certainty that an email you send has, or has not, been received, opened or read. None.

If your business relies on that, then you need to be investigating alternative approaches to whatever it is you're communicating.

There are a couple of conceptual reasons for this, and you can choose one or the other depending on your cynicism:

"It's spam that has lead most all email programs to disable by default the mechanisms that could be used to track email receipt."
  • Email is broken.

  • Your recipient's right to privacy trumps your need to know.

We can argue about the first all you want, but it's really that second that says it all.

It's spam that made everyone realize just how important that last one is. It's spam that has led most all email programs to disable by default the mechanisms that could be used to track email receipt.

So you can blame spam, if you like, for making this impossible. Whether that's part of "Email is broken", or "right to privacy", it is what it is, and at the risk of repeating myself it means that you cannot reliably track whether or not a specific email has been opened or read. Period.

The Traditional Methods

There are two traditional methods to track whether or not an email has been received or opened.

Delivery and Read Receipts

The email protocol allows email messages to include a request for a "Delivery Receipt" and/or a "Read Receipt". The idea is that when the message is delivered to the inbox the email program would automatically send a "delivery receipt" email back to the sender saying "it's been delivered". Similarly, when the email is opened the email program would automatically send an "Read Receipt" email back to the sender saying "it's been opened". (Whether someone actually read it is beyond the abilities of computer to know, all they can say is "it was opened and displayed on the screen".)

Here's the problem: most email programs do not respond to delivery or read receipts any more; it's disabled by default. Which means that the requests for these are completely ignored. You'll get no notification at all, even if you ask for one.

The reason is, as you might have guessed, spam. Spammers could use receipts to validate that an email they're sending to is a valid email address, and thus should be spammed even more.

No one wants that, so the feature is completely disabled by default.

Tracking Images or "Bugs"

In HTML or rich-text, images can be included in email messages. Those images can either actually be included with the message, or they can be fetched from some location the internet in order to be displayed. A good example is the Ask Leo! newsletter. It includes at least two images: a logo at the top, and my signature at the bottom. The images themselves are not actually included in the email, but instead are simply references to images stored here on the Ask Leo! web site.

I can tell when those images are referenced. When you open an email with those images, and have image display enabled, your email program makes a request of my web server to fetch those images for display. My web server can log that. In fact, while I don't, it's quite possible to include in that request not only the image desired, but also the email address of the recipient of the message that needs the image.

In other words, it sounds like a perfect tracking mechanism to determine whether an email has been opened or not.

Which is why spammers started doing exactly that; once again to determine that the email address they just sent to is a valid email address with a real person who looks at it, and thus is deserving of more spam.

And that, in turn, is why email programs no longer display images by default.

And if image display is disabled, then the entire approach to tracking using image references fails completely.

For the record: most companies that offer to track email delivery and opens use image references. Since many people do enable image display - typically for people they know and trust - it can still work - sort of. The problem is that there's no way to know whether someone has image display turned off. If they do there's no way to know if they opened your message or not. The technique is simply not 100% reliable. Period.

Alternatives

The most common alternative boils down to a private messaging system.

The technique works like this: you place your message on a on-line service of some sort - perhaps even your own web server, and then email a link to the message instead of the message itself. In order to read your message, the recipient must click on the link and visit the web server holding the message. That visit can be reliably logged.

Exchange Server is another kind of "private messaging system". People on an Exchange Server based system sending to others on that same system can often get reliable notification that email has been read or opened.

Other alternatives involve somehow obfuscating the message such that some other trackable resource on the internet must be involved in order to perhaps decode the message.

But if the email message can simply be read on its own without requiring these additional resources - just by showing up in someone's inbox - there's just no way to know with 100% certainty whether or not the message was delivered, opened or read.

Article C3958 - December 23, 2009 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

15 Comments
Malcolm Goodman
December 29, 2009 8:42 AM

A possible solution is:- www.msgtag.com

Gregg
December 29, 2009 9:16 AM

There is a way to track e-mails.
Try SpyPig - http://www.spypig.com/

You put a bug in the email(s), either hidden or shown with an icon. (I prefer hidden).

Once the sent email has been "opened", a return email from Spypig alerts you and provides a general address or location of who opened it, i.e., Bangkok Thailand, Houston Texas, as well as the IP address.

Try it. It has a few limitations but it's FREE!
Check it out.

A "bug" in your email is an image, and that only works a) in HTML emails that are viewed in HTML, AND b) if images are turned on by the recipient. This technique is not, NOT, NOT 100% accurate, as I've stated many, many times.
Leo
30-Dec-2009

Linn
December 29, 2009 9:25 AM

For those people who "blame" email for being so untrackable, remember that most paper mail doesn't have reliable proof of reading, either. Yes you posted it, yes it was delivered, yes it was even signed for (by some illegible name) and even yes it was handed to the addressee. And she threw it straight in the bin because she didn't realise how important it was, or it looked like junk mail. So the sender has "proof of delivery" but no-one read it! It's not an email-specific problem.
And just like paper mail, you can REASONABLY rely on the fact that IN MOST NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES email IS delivered, and IS read. If it's not deliverable you will be told. Yes, that system is probably not 100% good enough for military or even some business cases where it is really important but for most of our email it works. If you aren't told anything to the contrary, it's been delivered, and probably been read.
One big exception is when you've sent an email to someone for the first time, and you're not in their contacts/address book, and their over-zealous (IMO) email system has intercepted it. BT/Yahoo does that. And many of their customers don't know that the intercepted email is put in a junkmail or bulk mail folder that can only be seen via Webmail access, and these same customers don't remember being told about that (they were) and/or don't know how to get into webmail, or where to look find out how.
If Leo doesn't agree with my general perceptions, I'm sure he'll explain, below :o)
And if he says I'm wrong, I'll believe him. :o)

About the only tweak I'd make to your thoughts is simply that it's (sadly) not always safe to assume that email's been delivered if you hear nothing. Many failures are silent these days, as are some of the many accidentally deliveries into the spam/junk folder. The vast majority of mail is delivered, yes, but it's actually no longer safe to trust that "silence implies receipt". If important, I'll add to the message "let me know that you got this" for a manual confirmation that the email made it and was actually read.
Leo
30-Dec-2009

Vencil
December 29, 2009 1:42 PM

outlook express shows an open flap on the envelope when it has been opened.

Russ
December 29, 2009 7:20 PM

This is interesting. I have had a couple of times when signing up on a site or reseting a password, that the system sends an email request to verify its really me. After I reply, then it sends my needed info in a return email or lets me log on, etc. I.E. in their sent email include: please click on this link, follow instructions, etc. I would think this would be a way for this person to have some sort of verification if his/her email was verified it was received and read by someone wanting to read it... The idea is is you have to read the email to get the info you requested in the first place. What do you think leo?

The issue is more about people who claim they never got a message, and yet did. People are (desperately) looking for a technology solution to prove that "yes you got it, and you opened it". Sadly there's no reliable way to do so.
Leo
30-Dec-2009

Zaher Farhat
December 30, 2009 1:20 AM

It is very easy to be notified about all messages (Delivered & Read). you have to only set this option active in your outlook as bellow

1. In Microsoft Outlook, on the Tools menu, click Options.
2. Click E-mail Options.
3. Click Tracking Options.
4. Select the Read receipt or the Delivery receipt check box.

This is actually the most unreliable method of all. Almost all email programs now routinely ignore these requests. As, I believe, is stated in the article you just commented on.
Leo
30-Dec-2009

Joe
December 30, 2009 3:54 AM

I just send to the other person & the same e-mail to myself that way you know that it least went in ok.

Janet
December 30, 2009 10:53 AM

Most of these comments are re-statements of what Leo has said. The various commercial services which offer "delivery confirmation" are embedding a small-- typically one-pixel and marked transparent-- image that must be fetched from their servers. If the receiver's e-mail program requests that picture, then you know that the e-mail program is trying to display the e-mail. But as Leo said, if the receiver's e-mail program is set to not display pictures, then you won't know that your message has been opened. And, some e-mail programs display a pre-view of the message, which will make it look like the e-mail was read, when in reality is was just partially displayed on the screen. The human recipient might not even be physically present at the terminal when that happens, if he/she left the e-mail client up over night.

Zaher's comment explains how to request a receipt. As Leo said, however, most e-mail servers will ignore the request without notifying anyone. Some companies do enable this feature, but typically for *internal* e-mails only; so this might have some applicability for you.

Russ's comment about the "click the link" e-mails is a version of what Leo said about private messaging. If you look at the details of the link by right clicking on it, you'll probably see a long string of apparent gibberish after the site name. That's a "serial number" if you will, which identifies you as a recipient of a previous e-mail to the server when you click on the link. The server then gives you a custom response-- reset your password, view the important message, whatever. This requires your recipient to click on a link, however-- and we all know that you should not do that unless you're VERY sure that you know what you're doing.

Adding yourself to the "To:" line will tell you if your message was sent to the outbound queue, but it doesn't tell you that any of the other recipients received it. Usually, you can get the same result by looking in your outbox or sent items folder as well. Beyond telling you that your LAN and the backside of your own e-mail server is up, it doesn't tell you much. Although I should say, I use this technique myself fairly frequently, because I like filing copies of my outbound mail in the same folder as inbound mail from each client or project. But that doesn't mean it is a solid proxy for receipt.

Lastly, most e-mail programs have a display setting to inform you whether you have read an e-mail or not-- an open letter symbol, boldfacing, etc. This is a display setting only-- no notification is sent to the sender, and the user can change a message status from "read" to "unread" and back any number of times, with or without actually reading it. I have a BlackBerry and a laptop, and e-mails opened on one will still appear as "unread" on the other device, for example. So that wouldn't help the sender track who has or has not read a message.

In short-- ditto what Leo said. E-mail is just not feasible for highly time-sensitive or legally-binding communications-- for many, many reasons; the lack of delivery confirmation is just one of them.

Duane
January 1, 2010 6:13 AM

AOL has a 'check status' feature -- but it works only with mail sent from one's AOL account to another AOL account/email address.

Maryella Brown
January 13, 2010 4:41 PM

My question is how do you set up confirmation of email sent and read on BT Yahoo mail You can in outlook express as the person above mentioned, but how do you do this on BTYahoo Mail.

Tony
February 9, 2010 1:33 PM

What about the service offered by DidTheyReadIt.com. I've used the free trial version and it appeared to work, but I never actually bought it after the trial expired.

http://www.didtheyreadit.com/

Junaid
February 12, 2010 11:50 PM

There are many email tracking tools that lets you know when email you've sent gets read.Users get free return email notifications, and/or SMS/ICQ instant messages when email they've sent gets opened, and can track their emails reading history also.

As I've stated time and time again, including in the article above, these services are not reliable.
Leo
13-Feb-2010

John Bennett
February 16, 2010 10:34 AM

I have used MSGTAG for several years now and find that it is VERY reliable. OK, if your addressee does not use HTML it does not. However, for all HTML messages it has never let me down. No, I am not connected with RoboForm in any way!

Chris
February 16, 2010 10:38 AM

There are tracking systems that work pretty well one is MsGTag that is effective for most emails and one which I have recently started using is www.readnotify.com/ which works in more than 95% of messages sent plus also tracks when PDF and other documents are opened - great for me as I send my invoices as PDFs

Bob
May 6, 2010 3:49 AM

Reading through, the mention of receipt/read requests reminds me of an amusing message I received once, in reply to a read request. It said "The recipient declined to give a response".
Now, to my mind, that means the recipient got the e-mail, got the popup saying "the sender requested confirmation, do you want to respond?", and then clicked 'no'.
If this is correct, then clicking 'yes' or 'no' in effect means 'yes'. If my assumption is wrong, how would I have gotten such a message?

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