graphic showing a stack of cookies and a form on a web page for filling in address

Cookies 101: What Are Cookies?

Since the 1990s, the cookie has made tracking in-browser user behaviour a valuable tool for targeting digital ads toward receptive consumers. But what are cookies? They are unique pieces of data that serve a wide variety of purposes. In fact, the main job of a cookie is to identify users that are browsing a website, so that their user experience can be customized for them. 

Often, cookies streamline a web experience in a way that makes it easier for the user. For example, they keep you logged into a website, and automatically input your checkout information when making purchases online. Read on to learn all the basics of cookies, including what they are, different types of cookies, and how they’re used in digital marketing. 

What Are Cookies on the Internet

An HTTP cookie (also called web cookie, internet cookie, browser cookie, or simply cookie) is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the web browser. This small, unique identifier enables a website to remember a visitor and their actions from page to page as they browse.

When you add an item to your online shopping cart and proceed to a different page to checkout, the cookie stores what items are in your cart, so that they are displayed on the new page correctly. Cookies typically save information about a web user, like their email, home address, shipping information, username or password, or even their particular interests.

How Website Cookies Work

Cookies are critical for providing a personalized advertising experience, without invading personal privacy. When you visit a new website that has cookies, the web server for a website sends a short stream of identifying info to your web browser. As you browse the website, small pieces of data are transferred from the site and stored within the web browser that you’re using. 

Your sensitive information, like your address or phone number, is never stored unless you give explicit consent. 

As someone browses the web, they sometimes pick up cookies from multiple websites. When they return to a previously visited website, that website can read the cookie and recall information about them, such as previous activities, information and in some cases, where else they have been on the web.

Types of Cookies Used for Digital Marketing

There are a few different types of cookies, and they all serve a specific purpose. Here, we’re covering 4 main types of cookies.

1st-Party Cookies

First-party cookies are stored by the website or domain that a user visits. They are typically secure, encrypted, and sensitive to a user’s data privacy. These cookies allow the website to gather analytics data, remember important settings, and perform other functions related to user experience. 

3rd-Party Cookies

Third-party cookies are dropped onto users by companies other than the website the user is browsing. They are used for cross-site tracking and allow for the creation of audience profiles based on a user’s long-term browsing history. All 3rd-party cookies are anonymous and are not tied to any personally identifiable information (PII), like a name or address.

Session Cookies

Session cookies only last for the duration of a browsing session. A “session” starts when a user launches a website or a web app. It ends when they exit that website or close the browser window. Since session cookies are temporary, the information they gather is stored in a temporary memory location. It’s then deleted when the session ends. 

Persistent Cookies

Persistent cookies are stored on a user’s device. They hold information about their device usage, settings, personalizations, as well as login credentials. Persistent cookies are meant to provide users with a smooth browsing experience, mainly by auto-filling information that a user has provided before, and has to fill in often. 

Cookies in Advertising

Behavioural targeting is typically one of the default targeting methods on a digital marketer’s programmatic campaign checklist. This targeting strategy aims to ensure that an ad is relevant to the user visiting a page by serving ads based on a user’s web-browsing behaviour. User data is collected from various sources using a cookie.

Cookies differ depending on who owns them, which can create an identity problem for all parties who are looking to understand who the user truly is. In order for companies to best understand their online users, unique 3rd-party cookies need to be mapped back to an individual. That’s where “cookie syncs” come in. The cookie-syncing process is used by most advertising technology platforms to map a user’s ID from a demand-side platform (DSP) to the Data Management Platform (DMP). 

The adtech platforms both store the IDs and generate one unique user ID. This is how they match and target audiences with online ads. For example, StackAdapt is partnered with LiveRamp to sync cookies. When data is uploaded, Liveramp removes personally identifiable information (PII) and replaces it with pseudonymous record keys during the matching process, so data can be used with confidence.

The Benefits of Cookies

The real goal of cookies is to streamline the web experience for any given user. Let’s explore the two main ways that cookies do this. 

Cookies create a personalized experience. 

Cookies, specifically 3rd-party cookies, enable marketers to deliver personalized content to web users. They track interactions across different devices and touchpoints, so that targeted ads that you might like are served to you. E-commerce sites often use cookies to track items that users previously viewed. This enables a retailer’s website to suggest other products that users might like, and it keeps items in shopping carts while they continue shopping.

Cookies optimize session management. 

Cookies allow a web server to identify a user and retrieve the user session from their session database. This means that a user can hop back into the same experience they were having before on a website. The website will recognize users and recall their individual login information and preference. A cookie-based session ends when the user logs off or closes the browser. 

The Future is Not Cookieless

There’s plenty of talk about a potentially cookieless future, but that isn’t the way the cookie will crumble. There are several digital environments where cookies will continue to be useful, particularly in environments where they act as identifiers for users engaging with content and web pages. 

Although the cookie isn’t going anywhere, we likely will see some changes. The number of digital environments where cookies are accepted and tracked is going to evolve. For example, some browsers like Apple Safari offer options for users to manage cookies and website data themselves. Now, a user can toggle their settings to block all cookies while using that browser if they like. 

We are definitely moving toward a future that will be more cookie-limited, but it won’t be cookieless. That is why now is the perfect time to add cookieless targeting methods to your digital strategy. Cookieless advertising targets ads based on the environment in which an ad appears. It uses algorithms to target ad placements based on keywords, website content, and other metadata. 

This targeting method allows for ads to be shown to users based on the content they are consuming at that moment in time. And modern cookieless targeting leverages machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), which has made this targeting method more effective than ever before. 

graphic with texts that reads "The Guide to Contextual Advertising", with a prompt to download your copy.

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