AOL’s Official Statement on Image Rendering

Posted by George Bilbrey on

Yesterday we announced that we had been getting reports of mixed results in terms of testing the rendering functionality of the newly released AOL web client. Our tests uniformly indicated that accounts that had existed prior to the code rollout on May 23rd did not have images turned off by default, while new accounts do have the images turned off (which had not been the case prior to the 23rd). We took this to mean that the images off setting would only affect new accounts. However, several people reported to us that their testing uniformly showed images off by default in the AOL web client for pre-existing accounts or showed a mixture of images off and on for pre-existing accounts.

Obviously we found this confusing, so we asked AOL about it.

AOL’s official response is “Since the launch of AOL 9.0 in 2004, images received from unknown senders have been disabled. This safety feature is now also included in our recently introduced, enhanced Web Mail service (mail.aol.com).”

Since our test still shows that pre-existing accounts have images on, we take this to mean that AOL’s intent is to have all accounts default to images off but that they are either having some trouble with this update or the update is still rolling out across all accounts.

In either event it is clear to us that all AOL accounts will default to images off, meaning that any hit to your open rate metric could be more sudden than we’d originally reported. However, it’s now impossible to know exactly how this is rolling out, so it’s difficult to say exactly what your metrics will show and when. As we suggested in our original post, we highly encourage you to segment your AOL domains and watch your metrics over these next weeks.

However, we still believe the effect will be minimal for many mailers. AOL does not publicize statistics for use of webmail versus AOL 9.0, but historically consumer data has shown it to be low. This has probably changed since AOL started offering free accounts, but not likely to the point that it would tip the numbers significantly, especially for very large mailers. The individual composition of your list will be the determining factor.

Meanwhile, the advice in our original post regarding strategies to deal with image suppression still stand. Design for a world without graphics, but try to get your images to show by encouraging address book adoption and getting on any safe lists available to you.

The truth is that this change is a reflection of the new email reality. Most large ISPS block images, either across the board or for some classes of mail, and this will be more rather than less true in the months to come. The open rate has been in decline because of this for years.

Our belief is that the tide will turn as more ISPs adopt reputation-based filtering systems that allow them to turn images on or off by reputation. This will allow them to protect consumers while also ensuring the best visual experience for wanted email.


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About George Bilbrey

George Bilbrey is the founder of the industry’s first deliverability service provider, Assurance Systems, which merged with Return Path in 2003. He is a recognized expert on the subjects of email reputation and deliverability and is active in many industry organizations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) and the Online Trust Alliance (OTA). In his role as president of Return Path George is the driving force behind the ongoing innovation of our products and services. Prior to Return Path, George served as Director of Product Management at Worldprints.com and as a partner in the telecommunications group at Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. in economics from Duke University, and an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, University of North Carolina.

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