What Are Website Cookies?
You’ve likely encountered cookie consent banners when searching the Web and visiting various websites. Have you ever wondered what cookies are, how they work, or why some websites have cookie banner notifications while others don’t?
Whether you like to learn about the web or need to know if your small business needs a cookie consent banner, this article will satisfy your information appetite with the history, purpose, and legal regulations of the website cookie.
Let's dive in!
What are website cookies?
Simply put, cookies are small files that collect and store information about online users when visiting websites. When you visit a website that utilizes cookies, the website gives your device a cookie (a piece of information) that can allow the website to identify whether you are a new visitor or not, what your site preferences are, what pages you visit, if you’re logged in to the website, and more.
In other words, cookies allow websites to remember and recognize internet devices as they travel through each page.
First-Party cookie vs. third-party cookie
There are two main types of cookies, and each is defined by where the cookie originates and who can access the information collected.
First-party cookies only share user information with the website that put them on your device; Visitors can’t be tracked on other websites using first-party cookies.
First-party cookies retain information (e.g. login details), preferences, settings, site search history, and shopping cart items to improve your website experience. Other first-party cookies are typically deployed to track basic website analytics such as page views, visitor device type, visitor behaviors, and more.
Unlike first-party cookies, third-party cookies collect website visitor information and share it with an outside party. These types of cookies are typically used for advertising purposes.
Have you ever visited a website, left to visit another website (such as Facebook), and noticed that the ads are for the first visited website? It’s no coincidence. The targeted ads were made possible by third-party cookies, and their ability to track users across the Web is a significant source of privacy concern.
Cookies were invented in the 90s to improve the performance of website delivery (to the user and from the server) for online shopping sites. The development of the cookie introduced a revolutionary online shopping feature: the shopping cart.
Without cookies to determine whether a user had previously visited an individual web page or what actions had been performed, online shoppers had to purchase a single item at a time. With the deployment of cookies, online shopping sites (aka eCommerce websites) could identify users and remember their activities (e.g. adding an item to their cart) on all pages.
Since then, cookies have become essential for a convenient user experience. Have you ever browsed the Web using an incognito window? Because browsers don’t allow the storing of cookies and other site data when you use an incognito window, you may have noticed the following:
- You may have to log into the same site again if you accidentally close the tab.
- You may have to re-add items to your cart because they disappeared when you weren’t logged in.
- You may have to update a website's site preferences (e.g. language settings) again.
The future of cookies
While cookies enable convenience and user-friendliness, they’ve also fostered the expansion of invasive advertising across different websites. Privacy is also a concern when cookies can be used to identify users. Because of privacy concerns, browsers are increasingly phasing out third-party cookies. Some browsers, such as the latest version of Safari and Firefox, block third-party cookies by default. Google will “develop new technology that will improve people’s privacy across the Web” as part of their Privacy Sandbox, and Chrome will stop supporting third-party cookies in 2023.
Default third-party cookie blocking is excellent news for users because they’ll automatically gain more online privacy from ads that follow them around the Web. However, marketers and advertisers will be impacted dramatically because they often use third-party cookie data. New ways to implement ad strategies and design campaigns will have to be devised, but that’s the nature of working in the tech industry.
Does my business website need a cookie banner?
Depending on where your business provides services, you may need to directly notify visitors of your cookie policies and allow them to consent or modify cookie permissions.
At the time of this article’s publishing, there are no data privacy regulations requiring a cookie consent banner for businesses serving customers solely in the United States.
If you conduct business in the European Union (EU), your website must comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy Directive (EPD).
Cookies on websites are small files placed on your device that can be used to provide site function, ensure a convenient experience for the user, collect website user analytics for marketing purposes, and share tracking information with a third-party typically responsible for targeted advertising. Under evolving data privacy concerns, third-party cookies that track your activities across websites are being phased out and blocked by browsers.
If you are concerned about your website’s compliance, contact your web & marketing team and/or IT provider.