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What Are Browser Cookies and How Do They Work?

Inna Kogan • May 19, 2016

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With spring finally here, I decided it was time to buy a new pair of running shoes. My friend just told me about a new style of Nikes that recently came out, so I went online to browse different styles of fun and bright shoes. Bingo! I found a pair I loved, created an account, and added the shoes to my cart.

I quickly realized I didn’t have my credit card on me, so I closed the web page with plans to come back. Later that night with my credit card in hand, I went back to Nike’s website ready to search for the pair I liked earlier.

When I got to Nike’s home page, it welcomed me back by my first name and showed that my shoes were still in the shopping cart. How did they know it was me and what I had added to my cart? They knew it was me by using browser cookies.

We’re not talking about the chocolate chip kind. Let’s dig a little deeper into what cookies are and what they do.

What Are Browser Cookies?

Browser cookies, also called website cookies, are small bits of text stored on your web browser. They contain information such as session tokens, user preferences, and everything else a website needs to track your visits.

When you visit a website, a request from the website to the browser is triggered to set the cookie. The next time you visit a page it sends that cookie back to the website. Each request is totally separate from the following one, so the server needs an approach to monitor what request belongs to what visitor. By storing a small bit of information in a cookie, the site can establish that your online visit belongs to your user account.

Basically, cookies allow websites to recognize users when they return to a website. A cookie itself doesn’t contain data, but when it’s sent back to a web browser, it can help the website improve its customer service. With that said, if you clear your cookies, you will be logged out of all websites and your preferences will no longer be remembered.

Cookies can be beneficial to web visitors, as was the case with my running shoes. Cookies remember login details, user preferences, and even display personalized content to a user based on products and services they’ve browsed before.

However, there can be perceived disadvantages to cookies as well. It today’s world where everything is done online from doctor appointments to grocery shopping and ordering food, cookies are widely used to track users for the purpose of advertising.

In these cases, cookies use data to later target you with ads based on your browsing history. For example, you might see an ad on social media for a pair of shoes you just searched for on completely different website.

That’s exactly what happened to me when I was looking for a new pair of running shoes. I started to see ads for those specific shoes everywhere. From Facebook to Skype, ads were all over the place enticing me to come back to make a purchase.

As users, we plant cookies the minute we access the web. This is why it’s sometimes a good idea to clear your browser cookies from time to time and start fresh.

Inna Kogan is a quality assurance analyst at LYONSCG.

Inna Kogan

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Inna Kogan

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