What are cookies and how are marketers using them in 2019?

Cookies are an integral part of the internet today. They’re what makes it so you can fill your shopping cart online without signing in. They’re also used for tracking and personalization.

What are cookies?

Cookies, more specifically called HTTP cookies, are tiny bits of data stored as text files on your browser. Websites use these bits of data to track and provide specific experiences to users.

When were cookies created?

Cookies were developed in 1994 by Lou Montulli. He worked with his colleague at Netscape, John Giannandrea, to make online shopping carts possible.

What was the first cookie used for?

The first cookie was used to determine if a visitor to the Netscape website had been there before.

How did public views on cookies change over time?

At first, cookies were accepted by all browsers by default, and the public was barely aware of their existence.

That only lasted a couple of years, and in February 1996, The Financial Times posted an article detailing the existence of cookies, their purpose, and their use.

The Financial Times article was just the first of many articles that focused on the privacy concerns related to cookies and website visitor tracking.

A group called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) tackled the issue of cookies. They gave particular attention to the idea of third-party cookies, aka tracking cookies. The group’s recommendation was to either disallow tracking cookies completely or only allow them after the user specifically opted-in.

How did web browsers respond? 

They did the complete opposite. Netscape and Microsoft allowed third-party tracking cookies.

What kinds of cookies are there? 

There are four common classifications for cookies. They are:

  • Session cookies – These are temporary cookies that are stored in the browser’s memory until the browser is closed. These commonly used for online shopping carts and other short term storage purposes.
  • Persistent cookies – These cookies track you until their issuer dictated expiration date. These cookies track your activity across websites and report the data back either when you revisit the site or view a site that contains a resource (like a display ad) issued by the original cookie issuers. Persistent cookies are users when you click the “Remember Me” option on a website.
  • First-party cookies – These are cookies issued by the website you are currently visiting. They are used to customize the experience for the user.
  • Third-party cookies – These are cookies that are added by a domain that isn’t the one you’re visiting. The most common kind of third-party cookie tracks users after they click an ad and associates them with the referred domain

How do marketers use cookies? What value do they provide? 

Marketers use cookies to provide three major services:

  • Session management
  • Targeting/Retargeting
  • Tracking

A variety of forms of targeted advertising. That includes both targeting and retargeting, which is the act of following up on an action taken online.

Some of the ways marketers separate and target users include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Interests
  • Website behavior
  • Behavior on search engines
  • Behavior on social media

These are split into targeting, which is based on demographic factors, and retargeting, which is based on behavior.

Retargeting is a much bigger industry than targeting, which just tailors a page based on information. Retargeting is a commodity that is bought and sold.

Cookies are also used to assess marketing performance by tracking user behavior. You can learn what works and what doesn’t.

How can you get started implementing cookies on your website?  

Cookies collect and store user data that gives you a much wider picture of who your audience is and what they’re doing.

You can set up your own cookies with just a small amount of effort. But alas, I’m not the expert to guide you through that. Mozilla put together this handy little guide that teaches you how to write your own cookies.

There are some important things to note here:

  • If you don’t set an expiration date for your cookie, it will expire at the end of the session (aka when the browser is closed)
  • You can use the Set-Cookie function on PHP, Node.JS, Python, Ruby on Rails
  • Security concerns include session hijacking and cross-site request forgery

Figure out what your goals are, then create your first cookie. Be mindful of privacy constraints and be sure to protect the data that you collect.


Let us know what you think:

  • What kinds of cookies do you use? 
  • What sort of data do they collect?
  • What else should marketers know about cookies?



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