What is a cookie?  - Three easy steps to understand website cookies

With whom are your website cookies sharing data?

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Every day billions of cookies are stored on internet users’ computers, tablets and phones. But what is a cookie, what does it do and who places it? Here we explain cookies in three easy steps.

What are cookies?

A cookie is small text file that is stored onto the computer, tablet or phone the first time a visitor enters your site. The cookie is stored in the web browser in order to remember information about the visitor, e.g. language preferences, geolocation or login information.

When the visitor returns to your website, the web server requests the information saved in the cookie which allows your website to recognize the visitor. By reading the cookie your website can gain information about which language the user prefers or if the user has put items in the shopping cart and then display this information to the user.

cookie data exchanged from a computer to a server

Cookies are designed to contain information specific to a particular visitor on a particular website. Only the web server can read, write and overwrite cookies on the visitor’s device.

For example, if a user visits your website in a Google Chrome browser and selects Danish as the preferred language, your website stores a cookie in the visitor’s browser with that information. The next time the visitor returns to your site, the website can read the cookie stored in the browser and remember the language settings.

Although cookies seem to be harmless text files which can aid the user when browsing your site, they are not free from controversy. Cookies are also used by companies to track and register your users’ website behavior on your own website and in some cases across the internet. This tracking may be an intrusion of your visitors’ privacy and a breach to data protection regulations such as the GDPR.

What are cookies used for?

Cookies are often described as being necessary to enhance the overall user experience of a website. However, cookies are in most cases used to track the digital footprint of users across the internet and register their behavior primarily for statistical and marketing purposes.  

The information stored in a cookie can essentially be any text string, but usually contains information about the user or the user’s behavior:  

  • User specific
    • Online identifiers and IDs (user IDs, device IDs, marketing IDs etc.)
    • IP-addresses
    • Login information and passwords
    • Operating system, browser, language settings etc.
  • Information about the users’ activity and behavior such as
    • Page views
    • Purchase information (e.g. shopping cart items)
    • Website referrals (channel, Social Media, search engine, campaign etc.)
    • Time stamps
    • Privacy settings such as cookie preferences

European Commission’s guide to cookies

To sum up, cookies are used to remember information about the website visitor, their behavior and digital footprint on the internet.

Who places the cookies on your user’s device?

When a user visits your website, cookies are set on the device. These cookies are placed either by your own domain (e.g. mywebsite.com) - known as first-party cookies or by third-party services implemented on your site. These cookies are known as third-party cookies.

First-party cookies are typically used for basic functionalities such as keeping the user logged in to your site and remembering shopping cart items.

Third-party cookies are normally used for statistical and marketing purposes.

Examples of third-party services who set cookies on your site:

  • Google Analytics
  • Facebook Pixels/embeddings (like button)
  • YouTube
  • Advertising networks/partners

The cookies your website place on your users’ devices will always support an underlying function of your website that you feel gives you and your users value. Most often, cookies are placed by the functions that display videos, track statistics, integrate social media platforms or display personalized advertisements.

These cookies will often be used to create online user profiles that store information about each user, who they are, what their interests are and what they are likely to buy next. Based on this profile, services can display personalized advertisements to the user.

This is why cookies are hit by controversy concerning consumer privacy and why they are regulated by EU laws such as the GDPR and ePrivacy.

Would you like to know what it takes to be GDPR and ePrivacy compliant?

Cookie Information offers a wide array of services which provide you – as a website owner – with tools to ensure GDPR and ePrivacy compliance.

Our Consent Solution is completely GDPR and ePrivacy compliant and contains all the elements you need: Proven cookie banners, an auto-generated cookie policy based on a scanning of your website, privacy controls, etc. Our Compliance Dashboard provides you with a full overview of your level of compliance and consent rates even across large portfolios of websites.

We can also scan your company's mobile app - see how here: App Audit

Become GDPR cookie compliant

Become GDPR cookie compliant today. Book a meeting with our compliance experts.