The Different Flavors of Web Cookies

What are cookies?

In the simplest terms, cookies allow a website to remember you. When you go to your favorite social media site and it’s already logged into your account, that’s cookies. Or when you’re scrolling through the latest news and the links you clicked yesterday are highlighted, that’s cookies too! Cookies allow a webpage to recognize a specific user on their page and tailor the experience based on previous browsing behavior.

How do cookies work?

Every time you visit a page on a website, your browser sends a request to the site’s server to get that page. So, when you visit a website for the first time and cookies are enabled, the site’s server will send your browser a small piece of text data that your browser will store. Now, every time you visit a page on that site and your browser requests that page from the server, the text data is sent along with the request. The server sees the text data, recognizes it as the data associated with your session, and sends back the page you requested. Depending on what information the cookies store, the page will be customized based on your previous browsing.

Are all cookies the same?

While the different types of web cookies aren’t as extensive as they are in the world of pastries, there are a few different types. There are session cookies, which are found primarily on ecommerce sites. These cookies allow the site to maintain the status of your shopping cart while you continue to browse the site. They expire when you close your browser or if you are inactive for a certain length of time. Another type of cookie is permanent cookies. These cookies stick around after you close your browser and are used to keep you logged in to a site. Lastly, there are third-party cookies. These are cookies installed by domains other than the site you are on and are used to gather user browsing data for advertising purposes.

Why are all of these sites now asking me if they can use cookies?

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed a recent uptick in sites asking you if they can use cookies and explaining what those cookies are used for. This is due to the somewhat recent passing of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) back in May 2018. The GDPR is an EU regulation that outlines laws on data protection and privacy for European Union citizens. While not all websites get traffic from European Union countries, it is becoming increasingly common for sites to attempt to be GDPR compliant. This means adding a popup when users first visit your site that asks their permission to use cookies and tells them why they’re necessary.

There are some exceptions to this rule, though. The use of session cookies to maintain cart status on ecommerce sites is an essential aspect of the online shopping user experience. Therefore, ecommerce sites are allowed to use session cookies for this purpose without notifying the user that they are doing so. Allowing the user the option to opt out of session cookies would simply cause more problems than it would help. Since the average internet user is probably unaware that cookies are being used to maintain their shopping cart, they may become irritated that their cart isn’t working as it normally does, and not understand that it’s because they disabled all cookies. Sometimes, maintaining a consistent user experience is more important than absolute transparency.