What is a cookie?

Unfortunately cookies of the website variety have nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off and aren’t anywhere near as delicious as their name might suggest.

Chocolate Chip CookiesIn fact a website cookie is a small data file that is automatically saved onto your device (whether that is a desktop computer, laptop or smart phone) when you are browsing a website. These files can allow a website to ‘remember’ who you are, in order to offer a more personalised web experience.

As an example, it is cookies that allow a website to ‘remember’ what is in your shopping basket as you navigate around the site. Without cookies your shopping cart would empty every time you browsed to a new webpage.

While a session cookie will expire after a certain time period (for instance when you close your browser) a persistent cookie will hang around persistently. The latter kind of cookie will allow the website to ‘remember’ the contents of your basket weeks or even months later.

Cookies are sometimes also used to record details about a visitor’s browsing habits, for instance how long they spend on a website and which pages they visit. This information can be used by webmasters to learn about visitor habits and improve the visitor experience. All the information in a web analytics applications such as Google Analytics or WebMaster Tools is provided through the use of cookies. These are known as ‘third party’ cookies.

Cookies have come in for some bad press in recent years due to worries about files being saved onto people’s computers without their express permission. There were also privacy concerns about webmasters being able to build up in-depth records of an individual’s browsing and purchasing habits. These concerns led to the development of an EU Directive on the use of cookies which came into law in the UK in May 2012.

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