After an installation of Google Apps, some people are concerned about the lack of the delivery report / read receipt feature.

In one installation I did across 2 companies with ~60 users I was told that this could be a “deal-breaker” but after discussing it with the management, they agreed to give it a go anyway, and in the 2 years they have been using it since I’ve only heard the enquiry once from 2 people.

Let me explain my position at this point, I was advised against using email receipts a few years ago by a computer expert I respected.  His reasoning was twofold 1) they unnecessarily increase email traffic (therefore reducing performance) 2) they give spammers an easy way to see that they’ve hit a “live” person at an email address.

Nevertheless I was not convinced.  For a long time I requested a read receipt on every email I sent out… until I started getting feedback that many people see this as an invasion of privacy, and some were getting (mildly to be fair) annoyed at this perceived ‘lack of respect’ on my part.

I spent some time thinking about it, and did some research, firstly into email etiquette.  Here is an except from

32 most important email etiquette tips20. Do not request delivery and read receipts

This will almost always annoy your recipient before he or she has even read your message. Besides, it usually does not work anyway since the recipient could have blocked that function, or his/her software might not support it, so what is the use of using it? If you want to know whether an email was received it is better to ask the recipient to let you know if it was received.”
I was intrigued by learning that “it usually does not work anyway since the recipient could have blocked that function, or his/her software might not support it.

Wikipedia has a good summary, here are some excerpts from (bold and italics added):

due to the nature of the technology, e-mail tracking cannot be considered an absolutely accurate indicator that a message was opened or read by the recipient.

requesting a receipt does not guarantee that you will get one, for several reasons. Very few e-mail applications or services support read receipts, and users can generally disable the functionality if they so wish. Those that do support it aren’t necessarily compatible with or capable of recognizing requests from a different e-mail service or application. Generally read receipts are only useful within an organization where all employees/members are using the same email service and application.

Depending on the recipient’s mail client and settings, they may be forced to click a notification button before they can move on with their work. Even though it is an opt-in process, a recipient may consider it inconvenient, discourteous, or invasive.”
This is not the image that I want to project, therefore I started thinking carefully about whether I should be requesting email receipts, particularly as I always declined them myself.

I have over the years been trying to manage my time more efficiently.  I realized that dealing with email receipts isn’t an efficient use of my time.  I would constantly be getting receipts of emails, which I would have to file, filter or delete, just for the occasional one that actually seemed useful or relevant.

It occurred to me at this point that when an email DOESN’T reach the final recipient, I usually get a failure notice about 4 hours later.  Therefore, when I don’t get a failure notice I can assume, with probably a higher degree of accuracy than a delivery receipt provides, that the email HAS got there.

I often use the traditional postal mail system to explain email systems to people.  In this instance, asking for a read receipt is like insisting that you must know the time at which someone opened the envelope of a letter that you sent them.  Most of us don’t even think about that.  When we send a letter we assume it got there.

If we must have some additional ‘re-assurance’ we send it by a tracked service (e.g. recorded delivery), which is still only analogous to a delivery (not ‘read’) receipt.  If the letter isn’t delivered it is returned to us – very similar to the email failure notification I described above.

Email receipts could be accidentally generated, or even spoofed, so even getting one doesn’t prove that the intended recipient got the message, much less that they understood it!

So to sum up, requesting email receipts can be considered rude, they are unreliable and probably an inefficient use of time, which is why (although I was once an “email receipt addict”) I choose not to use them any more.

Google don’t support them, but it is possible to “Suggest a feature for Gmail” on this page and “Read Receipts” is one of the features listed for suggestion.  Many people insist that this is an important feature, so Google may implement it one day.

The best 2 methods for checking if that “important” email reached its recipient are:

  1. Call them and ask.  Particularly if you’re dealing with a client/customer this gives you an excuse to make human contact, which is important in building and maintaining your business relationship.  Speaking to them may seem time consuming, but the benefits mean it usually isn’t.  A conversation also means you’re far more likely to elicit a response to the original email.
  2. Put the document into an application on the web where you can reliably track visitors (by authentication) to see who has logged in, downloaded/edited the documents, etc. This also offers better security.

However, you can configure an email client to request them, even with Gmail or Google Apps.  It’s (usually) the email interface (whether a program or web access) that requests and responds to receipts, not the email server/system.

There are other ways to track email, such as embedding images (which is why email clients often ask you for privacy reasons whether you want to display the image), but these are often considered to be methods of “spying” on the recipient and are therefore discouraged by some.

Other references:

  • Email Read Receipts: good or bad? –
  • Read Receipts: To Request or Not To Request –
  • The original RFC for email (which doesn’t include receipts) –