No, we aren’t talking chocolate chip here. This is about those little electronic cookie that you’ve more than likely got in your web browser. This is a very confusing issue, and while the United States may not be facing the same regulations as Europe (where the laws governing cookies are much stricter), it isn’t something inbound marketers can ignore.

First of all, what is a cookie?

A cookie is the term used to describe a type of message given to a web browser (like Chrome or Internet Explorer) by a web server (the site you are visiting, like Amazon or Google). They are used to identify users and potentially prepare customized Web pages or to save site login information. When you browse a website using cookies, you may be asked to fill out a form with personal information (like your name, email, age, etc.). This information is then packaged into a cookie and sent to your web browser where it is stored for later use. When you return to that same website, your browser pulls the cookie from storage and sends it back to the web server to tailor it’s content specifically to you.

To many people, cookies seem complicated and potentially invasive. Are you even aware when cookies are being used? Let’s look at a couple of examples. Have you ever been browsing the web for a new pair of jeans, researching your next trip or looking to buy greeting cards? Did you notice that no matter which blogs you read or which web pages you viewed, Google has tailored ads for these items to appear everywhere? That kind of customization is made possible by cookies.

Don’t get the wrong impression; cookies aren’t always negative. There are plenty of instances where they are convenient, efficient and overall beneficial to the user.

Let’s Discuss: The Pros and Cons

The Cons

  • Privacy: The big argument with cookies is and always will be privacy. When a user enables cookies, they are allowing their web browser to track every website they have visited. This allows third parties to access information stored in these cookies.
  • Security: Whenever a web controversy arises, security is always an issue. The problem with cookie security lies within each browser. Holes in browsers can be so serious that they can allow malicious parties to gain access to email, passwords and credit card information.
  • Secrecy: While users do have the ability to block cookies through their browser settings, not many know how to do this. In fact, I am not sure I know how to do this! Browsers make it difficult to prevent users from turning them off.

The Pros

  • Convenience: Cookies remember everything! Not only will you be able to access your browsing history, but you won’t have to fill out online forms from scratch.
  • Personalization: Cookies allow your browser to get to know you and tailor content to your preferences and interests. Online web stores use cookies to offer you related products, search engines use them to understand your searches and social networks use them for everything!
  • Effective Advertising: Cookies allow users to be offered products and services that are only relevant to them. Why is this so important? If used for good, they are a powerful tool for eliminating all that advertising and email spam. This is the theory behind Inbound Marketing! Cookies allow Inbound Marketers to tailor content to those users for whom the information is most relevant.

At the end of the day, cookies are and always will be controversial. There are those that think the future of the Internet relies on the information that cookies provide to third parties. Then again, there are others (like the folks at Mozilla and Stanford University) that think cookies are a complete and total invasion of a user’s privacy.

Recently, the European Union responded to privacy concerns by putting in place an e-Privacy Directive. In short, browsers in European countries must do three things; tell users that the cookies are there, explain what the cookies are doing and obtain a user’s consent to store a cookie on their device. There are advocates in the United States that are pushing for a move in this direction. While this isn’t an imminent threat, it is something to be aware of and something that deserves attention.

For my part, I think cookies can be controlled to your own personal comfort level. I don’t think removing them from our browsing experience would really protect users as much as the current hype suggests. What are your thoughts? Are you for cookies, against them, or on the fence?

Photo Credit: Todd Klassy via Compfight cc