Website 101 – What Are Cookies?

December 13, 2019

Most of us like a nice Maryland cookie, possibly to dip in a cup of tea (or possibly even a hot chocolate). But unfortunately that isn’t what we are talking about here.

What is a cookie?

Put simply, a cookie is a small text file that is downloaded onto your browser when you access a website. It allows the website to recognise your browser and store some information about you, your preferences or past actions.

What does that actually mean? Well cookies are little files of information that a website drops onto the browser while you are using it. Some cookies will only be there whilst you are using the site whereas others can be set to remain in the browser for longer – possible even permanently.

They can be used for a number of different things, ranging from allowing the website to track information about what you are looking through to allowing you to be logged in. A Google Analytics cookie, for example, allows us to see what pages people look at and for how long, so that we can improve the experience of the site. A cookie that is used to tell the browser you are allowed to look at the ‘logged in’ page tells the server to let you see the page and if you do not have that cookie then you will be ‘logged out’.

What is the cookie law?

A few years ago the EU passed a law which many named the “cookie law”. It was concerned with a lot more than just cookies and was put in place to address major concerns about online privacy. Until that point marketers were able to anonymously drop cookies on your browser and basically follow you around the internet collecting all types of information about you. The law made this behaviour illegal by stating that websites needed to tell you about what they used cookies for and therefore allow you to provide informed consent. More recently the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) law has also been passed, which further increases the rights of users relating to their data.

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO), responsible for regulating privacy on websites in the UK, can place huge fines on companies who breach the online privacy guidelines (up to £20 million) and has already placed some hefty fines on companies who have breached these laws.

Could I just avoid having cookies on my site?

There are some cookies which are necessary for the running of a website. A cookie that allows logging in is one example. It is entirely possible to run a website without any additional cookies. You don’t need to have analytics, for example. However, cookies can provide very useful data and information that can really help your business. Take for example an analytics cookie. Generally these do not gather specifically personal information, but they will track which pages people look at, the journey they take through your site, how much time they spend on given pages and also what they are looking at your site with (i.e. device and browser). This can be exceptionally valuable for both you and your users. You can use this information to judge whether or not you are making it easy for users to get to their desired end page (e.g. to make a purchase or to send you a message). You can judge whether users are reaching dead ends and then put more links in to help them continue on their journey. You can even judge whether your mobile or tablet journeys are not working as well as your desktop journey and then optimise your site to make it better for those devices.

What should I be doing on my website?

Many people think that complying with GDPR means they do not need to have a cookie message on their site. This is not true. An important part of the rights of users online is providing them with consent. And updates to the cookie guidelines in 2019 mean that websites that use cookies for anything other than ‘necessary operation’ need to actually provide users the right to switch cookies off if they do not wish for them to be used.

At Idio, every website we build includes a cookie message as standard, and just as important it includes a privacy policy page which details how data is captured and how cookies are used, so that users can be informed. These cookie messages allow users to opt out of ‘3rd party’ cookies and we are developing better ways to allow sites to go further if they have more cookies than just analytics ones.

There are also plenty of paid options that provide much more functionality. CookiePro is one such example of a plugin we use for some of our bigger clients which allows full scanning and configuration of compliant cookie management. The advantage of the way we, at Idio Web Services, approach our websites – using WordPress, Elementor and a blend of other plugins and extensions, means that you can have a fully compliant website at affordable prices. And we also have GDPR compliant content, such as Privacy Policies, so that you do not need to worry about writing one yourself. We will make sure your business complies with the law.

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