If you talk to a stranger on the street about web cookies, there’s a good chance the stranger will have no idea what you’re on about. Maybe this stranger has heard of these non-edible cookies, but the odds of this random person knowing how powerful a web cookie can be are slim to none.
What is a cookie?
A cookie is a text file that acts as your unique ID on a website and is created by the site’s web server. The server passes this identifying information along to your web browser (Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, etc.) and the browser stores the cookie on your device (computer, cell phone, or tablet). When you return to the website, the browser sends the cookie back with all of its information. This allows the website to remember your preferences, recognize you as a repeat user and follow your navigation through the site.
If that was a wee bit confusing, here’s another way to look at it: think of a gang tattoo.
You walk into a gang’s territory and they’re like, “Hey man, you got to get our gang tattoo to walk through this territory,” and you’re like “Okay man, tat me up.” They take you to their tattoo artist; he asks what your favorite color is—let’s say blue—then he tats you up using blue ink. He also throws in a little flair, maybe a small star, making the gang tattoo specific to only you.
Anytime you’re walking through this gang’s territory, they know you’re the person with blue ink and a star. You go to the local bakery, the gang knows. You go to the local cinema, the gang knows. They also give you cupcakes with blue frosting and print the cinema tickets on blue paper, because you like the color blue and the gang wants you to be happy!
That’s how cookies work. A tattoo is the cookie identifying you and your preferences (blue is your preference); a tattoo artist is the web server creating the cookie; a gang’s territory is the website you navigate through; your body is the browser/computer storing the cookie, and a gang represents the digital marketers making use of your data. Visiting places within a territory, such as a cinema, is like visiting specific pages within the website, and the gang/digital marketers will be able to follow your trail, your cookie crumb trail.
It’s probably safe to assume gang tattoos don’t actually work like this, and cookies are much easier to remove than tattoos; but hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what web cookies are. Now let’s look at what cookies do, specifically for digital marketing; this is where the real strength of these small text files comes into play.