What is a cookie and what is it used for?
Cookies perform many different functions, from remembering that user log in information when visiting a site to what user preferences are selected. They also help identify which web pages are the most popular and what type of journey a visitor has through a website. This information helps website developers to plan and improve the content and layout of web sites and they play an important role in helping to develop a site that is easy to use and provides all the information needed for users.
There are different types of cookies which can be used at any time depending on what information the company needs to improve the site:
- Session cookies – Session cookies track user movement from page to page – they remember any information provided by the user to prevent repetition of inputting details. They help speed up the navigation of the website and are automatically deleted when the web browser is closed down.
- Persistent/permanent cookies – These cookies measure how often a user visits and also remembers preferences and settings to speed up and enhance the user experience of the website every time it is visited. These cookies are not deleted when the browser is closed.
- Anonymous permanent cookies – these cookies gather web statistics but don’t gather information which can personally identify the user. The information from these cookies is used to help improve the online experience of the website by making it faster and easier to navigate.
- Login Cookies- individually identify users by their login details
- Traffic log cookies are used to gain analytical information such as this. It helps website owners analyse what works well, what doesn’t and what potential customers might want. This information also helps to anticipate user needs in order to provide better products and services.
- First party cookies – These cookies are set by the website owners and they gather information about the user by collecting personal data such as name and job title, contact information including email address, demographic information such as postcode, preferences and interests and other information relevant to customer surveys and/or offers. These cookies activate when a user logs into their account and helps to manage their logged in session. This cookie is deleted from the device when the browser is closed.
The information gathered from cookies is also used, on occasion, for promotional and market research purposes such as sending promotional emails about new products, special offers or email surveys to get feedback from users of the website.
Websites often use a Google AdWords remarketing service which allows them to advertise on third party websites such as Google Search results, targeting previous users of the site who may have shown an interest but did not complete an action such as pay at checkout or complete some basic information.
There is an option to opt out of internet based advertising like this by setting preferences on the Google Ad Preferences page.
Many websites contain social media portals including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Vimeo, Google+ etc. These are external social media websites and therefore will have content embedded in these links.
For example, Twitter has a cookie which is set at the first load of the twitter application. You must accept the cookie in order to get access to tweets.
What are Web Beacons?
Web beacons are transparent images which are normally 1 pixel in size. Web beacons are used alongside cookies to allow website owners to track user activity on certain pages such as tracking whether an HTML email has been opened or not. If it has then the web beacon sends the server data confirming an action has occurred.
Web beacons, together with cookies, help website owners understand how users interact with the site by ensuring that content is relevant and to improve website and email content.
More information on web beacons can be found here
How long do cookies last?
Each cookie has an expiration date and when visiting a website for the first time, a web server sends a cookie and requests the user’s browser keeps that particular cookie for a specific period of time. Cookies can expire within a few minutes, hours, days or even years in the future.
How to opt out of cookies
It’s important to note that cookies are harmless and are used to help maximise website functionality and make the user experience better, however there are a number of ways to opt out of cookies:
- Blocking/restricting some or all cookies by setting the user browser to notify when cookies are attached to a website and then refusing them. Disabling cookies may result in the user experiencing limited functionality of the website such as not being able to access certain features.
- Deletion of cookies that have already been set can be done via the browser settings as well (again, some functionality for the website may be lost).
Information about managing cookies can be found here