Back in 2007, we looked at whether it was practical to use image maps in HTML email. Over 3 years later, there continues to be considerable interest in their support, so we decided to revisit the email clients featured in our previous test and add some new ones to the pile. After all, the iPhone was barely 5 months old when the original post was written!

Lets look at image map support across the most popular email clients, as well as a couple of fundamental issues with their use in HTML email.

The results, refreshed

As per before, we sent a simple test HTML email to a variety of popular email clients and were again, thoroughly surprised by how common image map support is, even when images are blocked. Here’s a summary of how each of email client handles image maps:

Image Map Support in Email Clients

Client Works with Images On Works with Images Off
Outlook ’03 / Express Yes Yes
Windows Live Hotmail Yes No
Yahoo! Mail Beta Info No
Outlook ’07 / ’10 Yes Yes
iPhone / iPad Yes Yes
Gmail Yes Info
Apple Mail 4 Yes Yes
Lotus Notes 8 Yes Yes

There’s been a couple of notable changes since our last test. For example, Windows Live Hotmail no longer supports image maps. Curiously, Gmail now supports image maps in Safari, whereas it didn’t before.

To find out more about the lack of image map support in Hotmail (amongst other issues), take a look at this blog post on ‘3 Things you Need to Know about Hotmail’s Latest Release‘.

Accessibility and image blocking issues remain the same

Despite the results looking relatively rosy for image maps, we still discourage their use for the same reasons as before. Image blocking in email clients continues to be commonplace and thus image-heavy email newsletters are as problematic as ever. In addition, image maps still make life tricky for the visually impaired and folks who read the plain-text version of HTML email newsletters, as the links display without context, if at all.

Personally, I find the use of image maps to be antiquated and well, bone-lazy. Despite HTML email coding being largely stuck in 1999, we don’t have to follow all the conventions of such an unenlightened age – especially now that accessibility is at the fore. We should also be striving for elegance in code, an elegance which image maps and their awkward co-ordinates don’t offer. Besides, who wants to change rows of unintelligible numbers, every time you edit an image?

Image maps also undermine the designer. Whenever I see one, I can’t help but think, ‘Oh, somebody couldn’t be bothered to slice up their design. They’ve exported a bit fat image from Fireworks and that’s all it’s ever going to be.’ It’s a real pity when we see newsletters that could be email gallery-worthy, if only the designer put a little more time and love into the code.

However, if you must send emails with big images and maps therein, we recommend that you add descriptive alt attributes. But in all sincerity, our recommendation is to avoid using image maps altogether.

  • Alex

    I think Hotmail has got rid of it altogether… any reasons why?

  • Jay

    Yea I noticed hotmail isn’t working suddenly at all?

  • Jenny

    I also found that Hotmail isn’t working with image maps. That’s what brought me to this page. In search of information on why image maps aren’t behaving in Hotmail. I have seen this in Firefox and IE.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Hi all, I’ll check this out today and update if Hotmail have dropped image map support altogether. We can only speculate why this is so – the brains at Microsoft work in mysterious ways. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Patrick

    I have experienced this as well starting today. This is a serious set back for me in my email marketing job. Trying to balance Hotmail’s tempermental coding, Yahoo Y! Shortcuts, AOLs stripping of comment tags, Outlook 2007/10 ridiculous use of Word to render.. and now this…

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    You folks are all right – Hotmail has dropped image map support. I’ve updated our results accordingly to reflect this. Many thanks for your feedback!

  • B. Moore

    WOW a month ago Image Maps in Hotmail worked perfectly.

    Its very odd to me that Hotmail can see the mapped links but when clicking the mapped areas it does nothing… weird.

    What is Yahoo Mail Full View?
    Image maps work fine in Yahoo Mail with the preview pane and opened as a tab.

    So what do you do when your Boss wants all emails as Image Maps because of the time saved by not cutting them up??

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    @B. Moore – Fab catch here, that bit was written just prior to the rollout of Yahoo! Mail Beta, so indeed the results for Yahoo! were outdated. Consequently, ‘Full view’ no longer exists. I’ve updated the post to reflect this, thank you!

    As for your question about saving time, well, it’s a trade-off, really. It depends on whether your boss is also happy for the image map to not work for all Hotmail subscribers (or ~12% of email client market share) ;)

  • Ed Melly

    Hovering over the image map, you can see that the destination URLs are still intact, and if you right-click and say ‘Open link’ (or ‘Open in new tab’), it still works.

    The fact that the cursor still changes to a pointer is going to make it even more confusing for the end user. I’d guess, based on the above, that this is a bug rather than a conscious change to Hotmail’s behaviour (this is obviously complete conjecture).

    Any chance of a definitive answer? Personally, I avoid image maps like the plague but I know this change will make a lot of our clients very unhappy.

  • James

    I can’t believe Hotmail dropped image maps. I really don’t want to stop using image maps in my newsletters. My production time is going to balloon. Ugh.

  • Columbus Ad Pro

    Thanks for gathering all this information. You are really providing a great service for some of us trying to figure it all out!!!

  • MKL

    It looks like Hotmail has disabled the use of image maps in emails. The link still looks intact, but a user cannot click through unless right clicking which most people would not do (like Ed Melly’s comment).

    Do we know if Hotmail will not support image maps for good or if this is just a bug? This is causing a huge issue for our emails as it would be extremely time consuming to re-program emails without image maps if an email has so many links!!!

  • Alfredo Arriaza

    works for me in hotmail live (firefox)

  • Ed Melly

    @Alfredo – Care to share the code you used? In my tests image maps definitely aren’t working in Hotmail in FF, Chrome or IE.

  • Alfredo Arriaza

    Correction: it’s shows the link but can’t open it sorry about that :P

  • Markus L

    This is actually a catastrophy. We have been producing emails for the whole summer in advance using imagemaps (huge time saver when you have to produce 3 emails a week in four languages with app. 30 links each). It’s also weird that Hotmail still have the image map intact but just the left-click disabled. Seems like a bug, but I don’t believe that they wouldn’t have noticed that by now.

    Looking at the statistics click rate have dropped with 75%. A lot of millions down the drain…

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Hi all, cool customer RD Morgan passed on an update in regards to Hotmail’s latest release. Microsoft has acknowledged that it hasn’t been wrinkle-free and are ironing out some issues, but no mention has been made as to whether image map support will be restored.

    There are a couple of other issues which are plaguing this webmail client too and we’d be keen to hear if you have been affected by them. In regards to fixes, though – watch this space, I guess.

  • Awarnach

    Looks like image map is restored in Hotmail?
    Can’t reproduce the defect anymore.

    IE8 with click-able images still doesn’t work as it should be.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    @Awarnach – Image maps still don’t work in Hotmail / Safari. So I’ll keep this one marked as ‘not working’ for now.

  • Awarnach

    @Ros We tested it this morning with Win XP/Safari 5.0.1 and the image map works.

  • Ed Melly

    @Ros – is that just Safari on a Mac? They are working fine for me in Safari 5 on Windows.

  • Liam McMaster

    Seems to work fine on all platforms now, so far as I can see

  • Liam McMaster

    * should add, have tested…
    IE, Firefox, Chrome – PC
    Safari, Firefox, Chrome – MAC

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    Liam – I still can’t get image maps to work in Hotmail / Safari 5.0.5 (Mac). Firefox is fine. I’ll try it on Windows in a sec.

  • ben

    Yep still broken in safari/hotmail for me too

  • ben

    seems to be fixed now…

  • ben

    i take that back, sorry. still broken in hotmail/safari (mac) combination…

  • WetDesigner

    Really my image maps still work fine with hotmail…strange

  • Ryan C

    lol maybe you guys are doing it wrong – image maps work fine for me as well.

  • Jammin

    Another image map hating email consultant – Wow there’s surprise.

    Do you all go to the same school?

  • David Padilla

    This was a very enlightening article, thank you for the post. Moving forward I will most likely never use image maps again however, I can’t help but disagree with your opinion about coders who use image maps are “lazy.”

    My occasional use of image maps have saved me a tremendous amount of development time when dealing with tight deadlines. Not only have they saved me time, they also save my clients money. Successful email marketing is all about results – generating high open rates and click-through rates, not about elegant code. I seriously doubt my clients wonder if I use image maps – they probably don’t even know what that means. :)

  • ben

    @Ryan C @WetDesigner did you test safari 5 on snow leopard?

  • Jamie Farmer

    I’ve just tried an email with an image map and it works fine in Hotmail (FF, Safari, Chrome). GMail (FF, Safari, Chrome) doesn’t work and neither does the iPhone.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    @Jamie – Thank you for letting us know, plus for tweeting in – we’ll give this a test shortly and update our results accordingly. Strange that image maps have been disabled on the iPhone, but I guess it’s really one less reason to use them.

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