What are cookies?

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Cookies can be quite confusing, as the word ‘cookie’ can mean lots of different things:

  1. (UK) a specific type of sweet biscuit (a small, slightly raised, crumbly biscuit, usually with chocolate chips).
  2. (North America) Any type of sweet biscuit
  3. A sarcastic reward (For example: When someone does something very easy or that is already expected of them but still expects praise and a reward. Someone might say, sarcastically: What do you want, a cookie?)
  4. A resilient/strong person (For example: She’s a tough cookie)
  5. An affectionate name used for friends or a partner (For example: Hey cookie!)
  6. Internet cookies.A small text file stored in your computer when you access a website.

What are Internet Cookies?

Internet cookies have been around for a long time, but it was only in 2012 that we (the general, non-programming public) really became aware of them, because it was only then that websites started having to (by law) tell us that they were using cookies to store our data.

We became very concerned with the idea of websites storing personal information about us, but what is a cookie and what is it storing?

A simple cookie is a small text file that is stored on your computer when you access a website. It’s actually very unlikely that it will store any of your personal information (like your name or address), as websites are much more interested in knowing your Unique User ID. This is a number assigned to you, the user, and will stay the same even if you’re using a different device or browser (so even if you access the website from your computer, and then later on your smartphone, the website will know you are the same person).

Your Unique User ID and the website address are stored in a cookie, which can be accessed by a web server and by your device (computer/tablet/smartphone). This means that the next time you visit that same website, the website is alerted. If the website knows you’ve been there before, developers might have programmed it to show you different information, for example, different products, services, or images.

However, there are several types of different cookies, which all do different things.

What different types of Internet cookies are there?

Some examples of different types of cookies are:

  • Functional cookies. These remember things like your username and personalize other features of the website.
  • Performance and analytics cookies. These are used to gather information about how visitors use a specific website – how they arrived on the website, where they click, their progression through different pages, and how long they spend on the pages. This helps web developers know if their design is working, and helps them to improve their website design if it’s not.
  • Targeting or advertising cookies. These make sure you don’t see an advert too many times – cookies keep track of whether you’ve seen an advert before, and how many times, so that you don’t keep seeing the same one over and over again. These cookies can also be used to make sure that you see offers that are relevant to you and your interests (based on what you’ve searched for before, what you’ve clicked on, or even your age demographic or location). They are how you’ll see adverts for products or services you’ve been searching for, even if you’re on a completely different website.

What are cookies used for?

Different cookies are used for different things, but in general, cookies are all used for the same purpose – to keep track of your visits and activity on a certain website.

By seeing their audience sizes and activity, owners of the websites can tailor their content and web design and see how visitors react. Collecting this information allows web developers to better tailor their websites to their visitors’ wants and needs, improving their experience on their websites.

In short, cookies are improving the way in which the Internet meets our (the users’) wants, needs, and preferences.

In the digital world we live in today, we know that the government and big organizations gather a lot of information about us, and lots of us are worried about the control that gives them.

Many people see cookies as yet another way of gathering information, so should we be worried about them?

The short answer is no. The amount of data a cookie stores is really very small, and it’s not always a bad thing that a website stores that information. In fact, it can often be very useful, because as well as allowing web developers to improve our online experience, cookies:

  • Save your preferences, making future visits to the same website quicker.
  • Let you save items to your shopping cart, allowing you to shop online extremely easily.
  • Record your login information, making it easier for you to log in the next time you go back to the website.

There has been a lot of controversy in recent years surrounding cookies and varying prices on the same product, especially when it comes to booking flights. Lots of people claim that companies store cookies when you look up a certain flight, and then, if you look it up again as little as a few hours later, they put the price up, as they know you’re interested. Different studies and companies give different reasons for why flight prices vary so much, but there isn’t actually any conclusive evidence as to whether flight prices go up because of cookies stored on your computer.

Even so, if you’re worried about cookies, or simply want to see if they make a difference to the prices you see, conduct your own experiment! Delete your cookies before you want to book, and see if the price changes at all.

How long do cookies last?

Since different types of cookies keep track of different things, they also last for different amounts of time:

  • Session cookies only last for as long as you’re on that specific website. As soon as you close the browser or leave the page inactive for a certain amount of time, the cookie is deleted.
  • Tracking cookies last longer, as they keep track of your visits to the website over a specific period of time. These will all last for different lengths, depending on the settings of that specific website.
  • Authentication cookies are long-term records of your login details. These will last for as long as you (or the website) want them to.

However, no matter what type of cookie is stored on your computer, you can delete it manually at any time in the settings of your browser. That means you can always keep on top of the information websites are keeping about you.

Still not convinced?

If you’re worried about cookies, and websites storing your information, you can always disable cookies in your browser. This means that when a website tries to store a cookie on your computer, your computer blocks it and sends you a notification.

In 2018 a new law was introduced in the EU, which means that rather than just informing their users that the website uses cookies, websites need to ask permission from their users to store cookies. Now, every website you visit must ask your permission, making it easier for you to track who’s keeping track of you. If you don’t want a particular website to store a cookie, simply do not accept it when it asks you for permission.



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