The Yahoo web beacon page describes their use of web beacons both on the web and in HTML email. We have previously covered Yahoo’s use of web beacons on the web here, so we won’t cover it again in this article. It is to their use of web beacons in email that we are focussing our attention now.
Here’s how Yahoo explains what they are inserting into the email they send you, in order to track certain things:
Yahoo!’s practice is to include web beacons in HTML-formatted email messages (messages that include graphics) that Yahoo!, or its agents, sends in order to determine which email messages were opened and to note whether a message was acted upon.
Now, the reality is that what Yahoo is decribing here is really a practice employed by nearly all commercial emailers these days: the use of an image, hosted on the sender’s computers, so that they can determine whether you have opened their email or not. The way that it works is that if you open your email (as if you were going to read it) – and if you have your email program set to display images when you read the email – then they can tell that the email was opened because the image gets displayed, and because the image is hosted on their own computer, they can tell from the logs that your computer accessed the image.
Usually, all they can tell is that the image was accessed, and the sender will count the number of times the image was accessed as compared to the number of pieces of email that were sent in that batch, to see if they are getting a good open-to-send ratio. For example, if they send 100,000 pieces of email, and the image embedded in the emails for that mailing is accessed 50,000 times, they know that approximately half of the recipients of that mailing opened (and presumably read) the email. Some more sophisticated systems may also be able to determine which recipients actually opened the email, by coding the link to the image in each individual piece of email separately to include the recipient’s email address or some other unique, identifying piece of information.
That explains Yahoo’s saying that they are using web beacons (something of a misnomer in this case) to determine which email messages are opened.
It is the “and to note whether a message was acted upon” that is somewhat less clear. In fact, in this context it’s hard to know what exactly they mean, and what exactly they could be tracking, as typically all a sender can know from anything they embed in email they send to you is whether you opened it and, if there are any links, whether you clicked on those links. Whether Yahoo is somehow tracking what you do and where you go once you click through the email to one of Yahoo’s properties isn’t clear.
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If any of this concerns you, there is one easy way to avoid Yahoo – or any other sender – tracking these things altogether, and that is to set your email program to display your email in plain text only or, at least, to not automatically load images. While whomever sent you an email will still be able to track whether you clicked on a link in the email (if you do), they will not be able to track anything that requires a remote image to be sourced from your email program.