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Website cookies 101: definition and examples

Learn what website cookies are, why we use it and how they work on websites. Ted Jordan uses simple words so beginners will understand!

Nowadays, we all click “accept all” without thinking about it when we see a website cookie banner. But what are website cookies? What are they used for and are they really essential?

Learn what website cookies are and why they are important, with simple words, thanks to Ted Jordan.

Definition

Website cookies are a piece of code used on websites to help users navigate webpages in a streamlined manner. They collect data which is saved on a text file, on your device, through your web browser. Additionally, website cookies are used in digital marketing to track data and personalise ads.

Website cookies are also called HTTP cookies, browser cookies, web cookies or internet cookies. All these different names refer to cookies.

Cookie.

These cookies are used to enhance user experience (UX), give users a personal website experience, remember user preferences or their login data. Cookies identify users through login data or IP address: each user is linked to a unique ID.

It’s important to note that website owners may not be allowed to use cookies without the user’s consent in some part of the world, such as in the EU or in the state of California. There are some strict rules to follow before using cookies on a website: GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) are the best known. These strict rules must be followed by website owners to avoid legal sanctions.

Not all website cookies need permission: for example, essential cookies (more on this later) can be used without the user’s permission.

Examples of website cookies

Website cookies are pieces of code that register different sorts of data: type of device, browser, user age, etc. They usually have an expiry date or a duration limit: user session, 15 minutes, 30 days, 6 months, or no expiry date (for essential cookies mainly).

Here are 2 examples of website cookies:

This website cookie is classified as HTTP so it is essential for the domain .blog.tedjordan.org. Also, it expires at a specific time: 2024/06/04 at 15:12:42.

The cookies shown in this example are not considered essential and are linked to the domain tedjordan.org. Their data will be deleted after the user leaves the website.

Where are website cookies stored?

Website cookies are stored on a text file through your web browser. The text file includes information about your activity on a specific website.

How it works:

  1. The web browser sends a request to the website server to access the site.
  2. The server generates cookies with data and sends it back to the browser.
  3. The website loads in the web browser. The browser receives cookies and stores them on your device.

For example, when you add a product to your shopping cart on a specific website and come back two days later to purchase your cart items, these items are still in the cart. Even though you added the items two days prior to this visit. Cookies are used to elevate your shopping experience.

Another example would be a website where you specified which currency you want to see for pricing. Every time you visit this specific website, you don’t need to set the currency out anymore: the website stored your information in the cookie file.

That’s why sometimes you might need to clear your browser’s cache to see a website differently.

What are strictly necessary cookies

Strictly necessary cookies, also called essential cookies or session cookies, are most of the time first-party cookies. They are needed for websites or apps to work properly and they expire after a user leaves a website. If a user does not accept necessary cookies, their experience with a website might be restricted or bad. For example, webpages might be slow to load or some elements might not appear properly, which can be frustrating.

When visiting a website, you might not see a banner to accept strictly necessary cookies. By law, necessary website cookies don’t always need a user’s consent, compared to non-essential cookies which do.

Are cookies essential?

Website cookies are essential for a website (or an app) to operate properly but they are not mandatory. Indeed, a website can function without cookies but it’s really rare and we don’t recommend this practice.

Different types of website cookies

Different types of website cookies exist. Here are the main types you need to know about:

  • Essential cookies/strictly necessary cookies: essential for a website to work properly.
  • Performance or analytical cookies: to track a website performance and improve its functionality.
  • Functional cookies: to help with some website functions such as login.
  • Tracking cookies: track all the user’s visits in order to build a profile and personalise the website.
  • Advertising cookies (usually third-party cookies): track the user data to show them personalise ads or custom web content.

Are cookieless websites the future?

As you might know, third-party cookies are disappearing slowly over the years (more information about third-party cookies here). So can we imagine a cookieless future for websites?

Cookies are essential for websites, as you now know, and even if third-party cookies disappear, first-party cookies will still be used by website owners, data analysts and advertisers. We do recommend though getting familiar with cookieless targeting to prepare for a cookieless future.

How to prepare for a cookieless world?

To not lose any precious data regarding users and be able to advertise efficiently, we recommend:

  • Improving your 1st party data collection.
  • Implementing contextual advertising.
  • Using alternatives to identify users, such as mobile IDs (e.g. IDFA for Apple users),  encrypted email addresses or click IDs.

Don’t worry, Ted Jordan will cover cookieless solutions in a future post. Join our newsletter to not miss it!

Now, you know what website cookies are, what they are used for and why they are essential. If you want to learn more about Programmatic Advertising, check our Online Course out (special offer for a limited time).