Internet cookies are used behind the scenes to enable many standard website features. What’s more, the data gathered by cookies allows site owners to analyze how visitors interact with their site, then make changes that increase site performance and provide a better user experience.
This article will explain exactly what internet cookies are and how they are commonly used, delving into some of the typical ways that cookies can help small businesses.
While cookies are an integral component of normal website functionality, they often involve collecting users’ personal information, so we’ll wrap up this article with a discussion about cookie-related security issues and explain how to comply with the government regulations designed to protect online consumers.
Let’s get started.
What Are Internet Cookies?
An internet cookie is a packet of data that’s sent between a website and a user’s browser. Its purpose is to track visitors’ activity on the website.
Specifically, a cookie consists of a small text file with a unique ID tag. There are two copies of it—one is stored on your computer and one is stored on the website.
The information that a cookie records about each user’s activity can be used to enable and enhance the functionality of standard website features like authentication processes, user comment sections, and shopping carts.
When a user returns to a site that has installed a cookie on their computer, the website can recognize the user based on the cookie. This allows the site to greatly enhance the user’s experience. For example, the visitor’s login credentials can be stored for a more convenient authentication process, their cart or wish list will be current, etc.
Information stored by cookies is also source data for valuable website analytics. It allows site owners to get information about which pages are visited the most, how long visitors spend on certain pages and many other stats about users’ behavior on their website.
These two types are handled differently by the web server and the browser, and they are used for very different purposes.
- Session cookies are stored temporarily by the browser until the current browsing session is over. The information they collect is only of use during the current session of active website usage; after the visitor leaves the site or closes their browser, the session cookie is removed. Session cookies, which many types of plugins use, are widely considered to be safe and integral parts of common website facilities like shopping carts.
- Persistent cookies are used to log a visitor’s activity in multiple visits to a site. They’re stored by the browser even after it’s closed. A common use for a persistent cookie is to make the authentication procedure easier for users. When the user gives permission, by clicking “Remember Me” on a login page, for example, a persistent cookie is created to store their credentials in the browser. This type of cookie could also be used to keep track of a user’s wish list or anything the user would want to have preserved for their next visit.
There’s another major use for persistent cookies that’s less about enabling website features and more about tracking users across multiple sites. Google and Facebook log user activity in this way to better customize the user’s experience. It involves the use of persistent cookies as tracking cookies.
Each time a visitor comes back to a site using a persistent cookie, the cookie will be sent to the issuer of the cookie. But the cookie can be sent when the user visits other websites too, provided those websites have a resource (like an ad) that’s placed there by the cookie issuer.
There are other classifications of cookies, some related to the cookie’s purpose or security, with others pertaining to the need for user authorization. For example, cookies that privacy regulations have deemed “strictly necessary” for a website to function do not require authorization.
Despite those more detailed ways to categorize internet cookies, having a basic understanding of the difference between session cookies and persistent cookies is a great start for small business owners who want to get the most out of cookies on their website.
How Cookies Can Help Small Businesses
Website features like a shopping cart, a comment section, a login screen that remembers your user ID, or the ability to save preferences are so basic, we don’t think much about them. But we’d miss them if they weren’t there, and cookies are what makes them possible.
Take the abandoned shopping cart scenario. By saving the cart contents using a cookie, an e-commerce site can help a returning visitor remember what they were interested in buying during their last online shopping session.
Cookies can even be used to tailor the user’s experience during the current browsing session, presenting different content based on pageviews within the session.
Are users coming in from pay-per-click ads, backlinks, or search results? Do they spend all their time on one product page, ignoring all the others?
Having such details is crucial because it allows site owners to focus their attention on the most important traffic sources and web pages, and generally use the information to refine their marketing approach.
Cookies are also commonly used in automated ad targeting in which ads are displayed to users based on their activity on your site or other sites. For example, WordAds puts ads on each of your blog posts, and it tailors the ads to the user based on data gathered by cookies.
Cookie-Related Security Issues
Website owners have a responsibility to protect their visitors’ data.
Meeting that responsibility involves implementing security safeguards, and site owners have some discretion as to how they do that.
Depending on who they sell to, site owners may face an additional responsibility that’s far less optional: GDPR compliance.
This section will cover both those areas of cookie-related security.
You’ll need to take standard security measures to ensure that customers’ cookie-collected personal information is not vulnerable to unauthorized access.
There are numerous ways hackers can attempt to breach your site’s security, so it’s important that it is protected by a firewall and uses security monitoring software to detect and remove malware and guard your site against all the ways that hackers try to break in.
Regardless of where your company is located, if you do online business with anyone who resides in the European Union, it is imperative that you make your website GDPR compliant.
GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation, is a government regulation requiring websites servicing the EU to be secure and follow prescribed ‘data privacy breach’ protocols. It applies to companies operating in the EU and is designed to protect all online consumers in the EU, plus any EU residents who share personal data online.
To comply with the specific GDPR rules related to cookies, a website must get users’ consent before using certain types of cookies, provide detailed information about the purpose of and data collected by each cookie, and keep a record of each user’s consent. In addition, it is mandatory that website owners give users site access even if the user denies permission to use certain cookies, and they must make it easy for a user to withdraw cookie consent.
If GDPR regulations apply to your site, it’s important that you follow the rules, and it would be a good idea to use a plugin that is designed specifically to help you maintain compliance.
Use Internet Cookies to Improve Your Business
Using cookies on your website lets you provide a smoother and more customized experience for your users.
They enable common website features like authentication and shopping carts, and the valuable data they can gather when tracking user activity can be of vital importance when you’re looking for ways to improve your marketing strategy and more fully engage with customers.
If you use them properly and comply with related privacy rules, internet cookies will help you run a better website and provide you with valuable business intelligence.
Are you aware what kind of cookies are gathered on your website?