What are website cookies?

01 Jul 21

Learning Hub / Digital marketing advice / What are website cookies?

You’ve probably found that over the last few years accessing a website isn’t as easy as it used to be. Now you may be bombarded with messages about privacy policies, and it is very rare to find a website that doesn’t present you with a message about cookies.

Cookie banners on web pages are normal these days, but a study found that a huge of people will choose to ignore the cookie banner altogether, although what actually are cookies?

How can you be expected to agree to allow cookies on a website without knowing what they are or what they do? We’re here to help, so read on to find out everything you need to know about website cookies.

What are website cookies?

Despite what you may have heard, website cookies are not spying mechanisms designed to steal all of your personal information; on the contrary, they actually exist to improve your time browsing.

They are simply small text files that usually contain two key pieces of information: the site name and a unique personal ID. They can collect more personal information, but it is up to you what you are willing to share.

They are created by the website and stored on your computer so that when you revisit the website, it will remember you.

Cookies are able to remember you, which is really convenient, especially if you’re online shopping and you have items saved in your cart – you can leave the website and return, and they will still be there. When you first visit a website, the cookie will be downloaded so that when you revisit it, the website can refer back to the original cookie file to present the pages with your preferences, which might include language settings and colour schemes.

Some website cookies are essential, and certain functions may not be possible without allowing them, such as creating accounts with usernames and passwords.

Why do websites use cookies?

Typically, websites cannot actually track your movements on their pages. They cannot follow you when you click from one page to another, and they cannot follow your behaviours on pages.

Cookies allow sites to keep track of what people are doing on their website. This gives developers a much better understanding of how their website is used and how they can improve it for future and returning users.

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The different types of website cookies

Cookies may seem confusing, and when you’re presented with unfamiliar terminology, it might be hard to understand what websites are collecting about you, but here’s what you need to know about the different kinds of cookies there are.

  • Session cookies

    Session cookies are only stored for the duration of the time you are on the website; after that, they are deleted. These cookies are good because they don’t store any personal data, but it may mean a less enjoyable experience in the future. For instance, you may return to an online store and find that your cart items have disappeared, which can be very inconvenient. Cookie banners should allow you to change your settings so that you can only accept these cookies.

  • Stored cookies

    Stored cookies, also known as persistent cookies, are stored on the hard drive until they expire. The expiry date is set by the site owner and can range from a couple of hours to a few years. Stored cookies are likely to be the ones that keep usernames and passwords to make signing in easier. These can be extremely useful for websites that you will visit multiple times.

  • Third-Party Cookies

    Third-party cookies are a type of stored cookie. They are created by a domain other than the website you are on and can record the other websites, pages, or products you visited to inform advertising. These are the cookies that seem to follow you around the web, for instance, when you see the same adverts popping up in multiple places. They can be easily disabled on devices through browsers like Google.

    It is important to remember that not all websites automatically use third-party data. If you’re not sure, it is worth reading their cookies policy to find out what they are tracking and how they’re storing any data. Usually, cookies banners will have a link to the website’s cookie policy, but if not then you should be able to find it at the bottom of the site in the footer.

What information can website cookies store?

Aside from the website name and unique personal ID, cookies can store lots of helpful information like how long you spend on the website, what links you click and the pages you visit, your preferences and even shopping carts. They can also collect and store more personal information, such as login information, but this is all to give you the most convenient experience possible.

Are website cookies safe?

Cookies themselves are not harmful, but they can be the target of online hackers. This might sound scary, but it is nothing to worry about as long as you do not sign into any of your online accounts on public WiFi.

Often people are concerned when ads that seem very personalised to them start popping up randomly on the websites they’re browsing. They don’t know that their information is being used by other companies to form a detailed profile about them, but this is only possible with third party cookies. If you are worried about this and don’t want to receive targeted advertising, each browser allows you to block this passing on of information.

Do I have to accept cookie policies?

When the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) came into effect in May of 2018, the new set of rules aimed to give internet users greater control of how their data was being collected and used. This meant that websites had to start informing their users of the cookies used to track them, hence why you didn’t notice cookie banners or pop-ups until the last couple of years. The GDPR also set out to give users more control of their personal data, which means that you are under no obligation to accept cookies.

Cookie banners, although often annoying, are there to give you greater freedom and choice. So, no, you don’t have to accept cookies.

Some websites require you to accept them, and sometimes you won’t be able to use all of a website’s functionalities unless you accept them, but it is still your choice whether or not you agree to proceed on that site.

It is worth remembering why cookies are there when deciding whether or not to click ‘agree’. Although they may be tracking you, it is only to improve your experience online, and you can personalise which cookies you choose to accept. As well as that, they can’t store any of your personal information unless you provide them with it.

How to clear cookies

At some point, you may decide that you want to start afresh and clear out all of the cookies saved on your device. You should only do this if you are happy to lose information such as login details because when you next go to log in to a website, you’ll have to re-enter your username and password. Similarly, you will lose any preference settings or cart items you have.

Clearing cookies doesn’t require any technical knowledge and can be done quickly in just a few clicks through your chosen browser, usually under history or tools. This is also how you would disable third party cookies and stop targeted advertising.

You can find out more about clearing cookies on different devices and browsers in this article from Norton.

Cookies… not just tasty treats!

Hopefully, you are now prepared to go out and face cookie banners head on! Remember that they aren’t always a bad thing, and they aren’t there to spy on your every movement, just to help give you a more pleasant browsing experience! If you are interested in learning more about websites, check out the website guides in our Knowledge Hub

8 interesting facts about cookies

  • Website cookies are just small text files that are stored on your computer to help websites remember you
  • Cookies exist in place of storing large amounts of data on external servers, making them much more convenient.
  • Certain functions, like setting up user accounts, aren’t possible without accepting cookies
  • Cookies help website owners to improve their website, to make the experience better for you
  • You can personalise what cookies to choose to accept or block
  • Some cookies naturally expire when you don’t visit a website in a while
  • You can block third-party cookies through your browser
  • Websites cannot follow your movements from page to page without the use of cookies

About Podymos

Podymos is a dedicated healthcare marketing agency. We are passionate about sharing relevant knowledge to expand our clients’ capabilities. If you would like to find out more about what we do, you can visit our services page, or get in contact with us.

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