March 30 2022

All You Need to Know About Digital Cookies

types of web cookiesEvery internet visitor has, at one time or another, encountered “cookies’’ -- invisible text files whose dual mission is enhancing users’ experience on the site and harvesting priceless marketing and other valuable data about users’ online preferences.

Why is it every time you open an online page, the only pop-up ads you see are aware of your penchant for designer shoes? It’s most likely due to cookies. Entering your favorite e-tail site, you’re greeted not only by name but your online merchant instantly suggests some tempting offers to add to your shopping cart. That’s right. Likely it’s a result of cookies.

What are cookies?

Whether you use a desktop, laptop, smartphone or other mobile device, cookies have been an immutable part of the digital landscape for nearly three decades. Hatched in 1994 by a NetScape programmer, cookies are bits of text code embedded in web browsers or web servers.

These digital-data morsels are ideal for mining, storing and reporting on users’ experience metrics. Among other things, they:

  • Track when and how often and the amount of time and the content users engage with on a website

  • Tally and “remember’’ specific details about each unique visitor's browsing habits and their devices to personalize and enhance users’ site experience

  • Monitor which online ads users click on so that digital marketers can better track ROI

With their browser settings, users can block most cookies or change preference settings limiting their use, but few people take the time to do this.

Cookies vs. mounting privacy headwinds

As useful as they are to web publishers and digital marketers, the information-share role of cookies puts them at odds with the need to protect users’ online privacy. More recently, those concerns have mounted globally, prompting actions in the U.S. and abroad to regulate and tighten their use.

As a result, operators of popular internet browsers Safari and Firefox have already taken steps to eliminate one of the more problematic digital cookies, giving users more privacy control over when and how they engage with a website’s cookies. Google’s Chrome browser will join Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox in ending the use of third-party cookies in late 2023.

Varieties of cookies in the cookie jar

The types of cookies depend on how they have been created and where they are being dropped in the browser. This breaks down the most common cookies and how they enhance the user experience to the benefit of website operators and digital marketers:

First Party Cookies

First party cookies are served up by website publishers to collect analytical data (e.g., Google Analytics), remember site settings (e.g., user’s location) or enhance the overall user experience on a website. Since they only live on one website they don’t track through to other sites, and the tracking of these cookies should be disclosed in a website’s privacy policy. For privacy protection, if users do not consent to tracking, this type of cookie will not fire.

Second Party Cookies

Despite their dubious title, second party cookies are the type that are transferred from one web publisher or marketer to another via a data-sharing partnership or by mutual agreement. You likely have encountered this format when during a site visit, you were asked to authorize “sharing of your data with trusted companies.”

Third Party Cookies

These cookies are fed through a different domain than you are currently on. They are commonly used to track user activity between different domains, show relevant ads on websites or even be used to trigger functionality provided by a third party like a “chat” feature.

Persistent Cookies

Also known as “permanent” or “stored” cookies, these exist on users’ devices to house their sign-on credentials, users’ settings and preferences, and other information, for a faster, better web experience. By law, persistent cookies must be erased after 12 months.

Marketers must understand cookies

The wonderful world of web cookies is ever-evolving as users are asking for more control over their privacy. Consumers should make themselves aware of what sites are tracking and whether they’re intentionally or unintentionally sharing information. Likewise, marketers will need to pay close attention to this topic as it relates to being transparent with visitors and being able to reliably track campaign and site performance. Talk with a ZAG Interactive representative to learn more.

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posted by
Gregory Seay
Gregory Seay
Web Content Strategist

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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