Over the last few years, you’ll have seen a notice on nearly every website that goes along the lines of ‘We use cookies to improve your experience of our website’. That’s all fine and dandy, but what are website cookies and what do they do to improve experience?

It’s important to understand that websites use cookies in different ways and that the examples I’ve included in this post are just a few ways in which they can be utilised.

What is a Cookie?

A cookie is a small file that a website can store on your computer – a cookie itself isn’t a piece of software or a computer programme. In it’s most basic form, a cookie for a particular website will contain some for ID, but can be used to store almost any data. Lets use joescoffeeshop.com as an example.

The Most Basic of Cookies

The first time you visit joescoffeeshop.com, the website saves a cookie to your computer. The second time you visit joescoffeeshop.com, the website checks to see if a cookie on your computer exists and gets the ID from the cookie. Now the website knows that you’ve visited before – perhaps as a return visitor, it will display a ‘special offer’ popup.

Cookies Helping You

Cookies can be much cleverer than this. Now lets imagine that whilst on joescoffeeshop.com, you begin to browse through a selection of instant coffee brands that you’re able to buy online. You see one that you like and include it in your basket but before you get chance to finish your purchase, you realise you’re running late and need to turn off the computer and go.

Remember, the website has a cookie on your computer with a unique ID. When you added the instant coffee to your basket, the website saved your cookie ID and your choice of instant coffee in a database online. The next time you visit joescoffeeshop.com, lets say 4 days later, the website will again check for a cookie with your unique ID – it’ll check this ID against a database and notice that you previously added instant coffee to your basket without completing the checkout process. So long as the same instant coffee is still in stock, the website will automatically re-add this coffee to your basket rather than have you go through the process of finding it again from a catalogue of products.

In this case, cookies are beneficial to you and to joescoffeeshop.com

  1. The coffee was automatically added to your basket, therefore you saved time by not having to look for it and can subsequently finish the purchase much faster – there’s less chance of you having to dash out again before finishing the transaction.
  2. The coffee shop benefit from the sale. There’s a chance that you couldn’t remember the coffee you wanted last time you were on the site and decided not to make a purchase. The cookie means the right coffee was automatically in your basket and you were more likely to make a purchase.

For ease of use next time you shop, the cookie also collected your name and address to make the checkout process faster next time round. Over the next few months, you may return and continue to purchase coffee from joescoffeeshop.com.

Cookies ‘Spying On You’

Please note that all of this is theoretical.

Whilst cookies can be used to your benefit, they can also be utilised to benefit the pockets of individuals and companies by collecting and monetising your data. Most of the time, these are called ‘third-party cookies’ because the data collected by a cookie on a particular website, isn’t necessarily being used by the same site.

To help fund the cost of running their website, joescoffeeshop.com also used ‘third-party cookies’ to pass your name, address and preference of instant coffee to an advertising agency for a fee. When we click ‘checkout’ on a website, there’s typically always a ‘Privacy Policy’, ‘Marketing Policy’ and/or ‘Terms and Conditions’ that we agree to before finalising a purchase – somewhere in this policy, it could say that your data is sold to an agency (though it is very unlikely).

At this point, a cookie on joescoffeeshop.com means that an advertising agency knows your name, address and favourite instant coffee – within the next few days, you could well receive an advert through your door to buy new cups for your coffee habit. To go one step further, research shows that people who regularly drink coffee are at a lower risk of suffering from heart-related conditions. In a few weeks, you may find a discounted life insurance advertisement through your door. From switching your life insurance provider, you may also find they offer a better rate or quality of service and choose to switch your car insurance too.

In this instance, a third-party cookie from a local coffee shop has directly benefitted a worldwide insurance company.

Clearing Your Cookies

Because cookies are stored on your computer, you have the final say in how long they remain there. You can clear your cookies at any time from within your web browser.

Whilst this article is a few years old now, it’s information on deleting cookies remains useful today: https://www.pcworld.com/article/242939/how_to_delete_cookies.html

In Summary

Cookies are designed to make using websites simpler. They can be used ethically, such as to make online checkouts easier, or collect anonymous data about the pages you visit and how long you spend on a page to help decide which areas of a website need improving. They can also be used to harvest information about you for advertising, though cookies are used much more for the former than the latter.