What do cookies actually do?
Cookies track your behavior on websites and browsers, which the site, or a third-party, can use to build out a persona or profile for any user, and target them with ever more personalized content based on users’ engagement on webpages.
Cookies can also be used to identify unique and returning visitors to a website. When a user visits a website, the site creates a cookie that stores data that identifies that exact user. If the user leaves the website and visits again, the website will recognize the user as a returning user. A good example of why this can be a huge help would be an e-commerce website that remembers the products you added to your cart last time you visited, even though you didn't complete the purchase.
Something which you might not appreciate so much is 3rd-party advertisers dropping cookies onto your device to help them figure out the perfecting marketing strategy to tempt you. So there’s that. Not everything is perfect.
The different types of cookies
Not all cookies are equal, and they perform different tasks, so let’s look at some of the specific types of cookies and what they do:
First-party: These are installed by any website that you’re currently visiting. For example, cookies that identify whether you’re a new or returning visitor.
Third-party: Other websites or third-party servers, that you are not currently visiting/actively engaging with, implement these cookies. Third-party advertisers use them to track you and get insights into your behavior and preferences to build marketing personas. Depending on how long they remain on your device, they could be classed as either session or persistent cookies.
Session: These are only stored temporarily in your browser, often expiring when your browsing session ends or you close your browser.
Persistent: These stay in your browser for a longer time. They’ll only disappear when they reach their expiration date or, when you clean them out of your system yourself. This type of cookie can often be classified as either a necessary or a non-necessary cookie.
Necessary: These are crucial to the functioning of the website.
Non-necessary: These are less important for the functioning of the website. Cookies that track your purchasing habits would be considered non-necessary.
So, come on, are cookies good or bad?
It’s not that cookies are good or bad, it’s more about where you draw the line regarding online privacy, and what you are comfortable with. A good example of why cookies can be a huge help is the one we mentioned — when an e-commerce website remembers the products you added to your cart last time you visited, even though you didn't complete the purchase. This is rather useful — in fact, weren’t you happily surprised to see your items still sitting in your cart where you left them?
Without cookies, every time you visited a new page of a website, you’d have to re-enter your preferences like language, currency, plus logins and prove you’re not a robot. Annoying.
In addition, Europe’s data privacy and security law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), has brought in some protective measures around cookies and the collecting of personal data without web users’ knowledge, or to push non-necessary cookies onto your browser without your consent. That includes cookies that track your online behavior to better target advertising and personalized content.
So rather than ask if cookies are good or bad, let’s look at their pros and cons.
Pros and cons of cookies
We just mentioned some of that GDPR stuff, and yes, the EU Cookie Law means that websites now need to ask your consent before using tracking cookies, but most of them force you to consent by only allowing you to continue past a point unless you agree to having your cookies stored. Clever, huh? Sometimes there’s a default choice to opt out which means you need to actively check a box to allow cookies.
Here are the basic pros and cons of cookies in a nutshell:
You can enjoy a more personalized and tailored browsing experience.
Websites will remember your name and details if you want to login or fill in a form, making your online experience easier.
Website owners also benefit from cookies by getting information about their site visitors and personalizing their experiences.
If a website expects to find a cookie on your computer that has login information, and you’ve already gotten rid of that cookie, you may not be able to log in to the site, and the site's developer provides no alternate method of logging you in.
Cookies are linked with specific devices. If a site stores cookies on your personal laptop, it won’t recognize you when you visit while using your work computer.
When you let people use your browser account, they can see what kinds of sites you visit by peeking at your browser file — unless you get rid of them!
Should I block cookies?
Cookies are everywhere, and people are understandably nervous about how far they intrude into our daily online privacy. Most of us go through phases of impulsively deleting all our cookies, then having to re-enter all our logins and find our favorite websites again.
Is deleting cookies effective? Should you wipe cookies from your computer?
Yes, sometimes. Most browsers have settings that allow you to block cookies or wipe them from your system with a few clicks. It’s a good idea to only shut out third-party cookies, because without your necessary cookies, you’ll suffer a downgraded browsing experience. Some browsers offer a “Do Not Track” (DNT) feature that signals websites to stop tracking you. But not every site out there will comply with the signal request. Read how to enable it in different browsers here.
Using anti-tracking software for better online privacy?
Many people get around the negative aspects of cookies by using anti-tracking software whenever they go online. It offers some level of protection against the threats associated with cookies and helps protect your general online privacy.
Anti-tracking software injects fake information into the data that makes up your digital fingerprint or online persona, which stops trackers and data brokers from getting an accurate picture of your online activities. It also wipes tracking cookies and browser data from your devices if you so wish. Naturally, we recommend using AVG AntiTrack and enjoying some of that sweet, sweet, online privacy, right now.
Cookies are neither good nor bad, and they can be very helpful. But hey, you do give up a bit of your online privacy for that smooth online experience, plus the personalized content and ads that you hate a little less than the random ads and content — but it’s all about where you feel comfortable drawing the line. You can wipe cookies from your device or keep them around and enjoy a more tailored online experience, accepting that you’re sacrificing a little of your privacy for that.
Most people find the best option is a combination of deleting non-necessary cookies while installing anti-tracking software to keep advertisers from being able to build out a full marketing persona of you and your online activities. Because let’s face it, there’s a limit to how much online spying people are comfortable with. Get AVG AntiTrack and start disguising your online today.