What you need to know about website cookies

When browsing the web today it is near impossible to not encounter a “cookie”. However that encounter happens in the background and you as the visitor aren’t necessarily aware that a cookie is stored on your browser. Sometimes you may be greeted by a short message which makes you aware that the site uses ‘website cookies’ and that you can make a choice about whether you allow the website to place them on your smartphone, tablet PC or computer. In this post I want to bring attention to this topic to my readers. I will only tackle the most common uses, for a more detailed overview of cookies please search for the term online or check this Wikipedia article on website cookies.

website cookies choc chip cookieWhat is a website cookie?

A ‘website cookie’ is a piece of information (code) which is stored in your web browser (e.g. Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer) when you visit a website. The next time you visit that website it looks for existing cookies and reads the data in it to help create a better user experience for you and gather behavioural data. The cookie has various uses and is generally harmless in that as such it cannot “infect” your system. There are however ways and means a hacker could potentially use the information to get access to sensitive data, always be sure of the security level you need and want for which website. A cookie simply helps your browser provide you with a much better browsing experience than without. Most websites today would be half as pleasant to use without cookies in place.

Different categories of cookies

Remember Me

One of the most common cookie uses is for the “remember me” function. Nearly everywhere you login you find a tick box asking you if you want the website to remember you? If you tick that box a cookie is written with that information and when you do visit the next time it keeps you logged in unless the limits have been reached. For example many websites automatically log you out after a certain period of time has lapsed, or you closed your browser.

When you return to visit the same website, the cookie that was left in your browser on your previous visit is recognized and this is when you will see messages such as ‘Welcome back, Jane!’, if your name is Jane. The cookie might also have remembered web pages on the site you visited and the website could then provide you with recommendations  of other products or pages for you to visit.

It is for this reason that it is very important never to tick this box on a shared computer such as in an Internet cafe. In this case you should also always clear your cookies after your session (check your settings or preference menu option of your favourite browser).

Session management

Similar to the one above this sort of cookie helps keep track of your current session on a website. Shopping carts would be impossible without the use of cookies. When you click the “add to cart” button in any online store you are essentially creating a cookie storing the product data in it and as long as you don’t leave this website (end the session), this cookie is active and knows your data ready for retrieval when you click “checkout”.

Personalisation

This is another nice to have type of cookie. It not only remembers who you are but also what your preferences are, where you left off last time and many similar types of information depending on the website.

website cookieTracking

This type of cookie is the one of interest to the marketers of this world. It’s the cookie that stores data on what you clicked when and what you did after that. Google Analytics, which is used on most websites to track visitor behaviour, is using all sorts of cookies to track what you’re doing on any website and then gives this information to the website owner – anonymously. This is important to know for any marketer. The cookies keep track of how you reached a website; did you do a Google search (and which keyword did you type in) or did you click on a Twitter link, etc. That way website owners can use the data to optimise their website which in turn will provide a more seamless experience for the visitors (or so we hope, it’s part of my “job” to teach marketers and business owners how to use this data).

Many companies these days use marketing automation software to track their website data. I love putting marketing campaigns together based on visitor/lead behaviour! To give you an example, in the Hubspot software any form you fill out on a website that uses Hubspot, creates a cookie with the data you just filled in. That data by the way is in this case generally very generic (how big is your company, what’s your industry, etc.), no need to worry too much about it but always be sensitive to what kind of information you provide when you fill out any form. In the case of Hubspot they ask a lot of such generic questions because they want to truly understand their visitors better. The great thing is, via the cookie next time you come visit one of their webpages it recognises you and you don’t have to fill out that data again.

Taking this a step further, having this sort of information you can then optimise your website even more. For example if you have an entire marketing funnel prepared (from a blog post, to an ebook, to a demo, to a sale rep talk) you don’t want to show the same CTA (call to action) button for the ebook again to a person who has already downloaded that ebook. Wow – how amazing is that, if I keep my cookies intact and the website recognises me via it, then it will show me content relevant to me and my previous visits.

Security and Privacy concerns

You can control whether a website cookie is placed into your web browser when you visit a site through the settings in your web browser. When you see the warning on a website you are visiting for the first time, the message usually provides you with details about how the cookie will be used and how to change your settings in the web browser if you choose to accept or reject whether a cookie is used. This is mandatory in some EU countries, but not in South Africa at the time of writing this.

People have raised concerns about their privacy when it comes to the use of cookies. Understandably, some internet users do not want their activities to be tracked on the web, which is why the law in certain countries makes it compulsory for websites to provide visitors with the option of whether they want a website cookie to be installed in their browser.

You can always clear cookies stored in your web browser, should you have concerns about their usage. It also pays to make sure you browse reputable websites when you can and to regularly check your settings to make sure you only have cookies that you are happy with in your browser. Remember though that when you clear all your cookies none of the websites you visit frequently will remember you and you will have to reset all your settings.

Cookies are mainly used by internet marketers who are trying to understand your habits and interests more closely to provide you with a personalised experience. This is a positive aspect of cookies so that you get to view products or services more suitable for you more quickly. The best websites use cookies responsibly and they make your experience more personal.

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Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net