Cookies: More Than Your Favorite Treat

I’m told I make the best cookies. But this article isn’t about baked goods, unfortunately.

Cookies, the kind you find on your computer, often get a bad rep. We’ll get into why in a moment. But before you delete all your cookies, let’s clarify what cookies are exactly.

Actually, Microsoft gives a good summary of what a cookie is. Let me take the good bits of their definition and string something together for you.

“Cookies are small files that websites put on your computer hard disk drive when you first visit. Think of a cookie as an identification card that’s uniquely yours. Cookies tell us how often you visit pages, which helps us learn what information interests you. In this way, we can give you more of the content you like and less of the content you don’t. Cookies let you store preferences and user names, register products and services, and personalize pages.”

Of course, Microsoft uses cookies, as most websites do. So their definition does not touch on the downsides of cookies. But it still gives you a good overview of what a cookie is.

Cookies have a good side and a bad side. Like Star Wars. You have the jedi and the sith.

This metaphor isn’t going very far, let’s just jump into some pros and cons.

Pro: Personalization

Microsoft’s definition above touched on this. When you visit a website, it sends a cookie to your computer. It then uses this cookie to take note of your visit. This information is used in further visits to the website in order to personalize the experience for you.

Notice that your shopping cart has the same items in it when you visit the website the next day? Or Amazon recommends items based on what you looked at yesterday? Or Craigslist remembers which location you viewed last? Those are because of cookies.

Specifically, these are due to persistent cookies. Persistent cookies keep long term website information stored on your computer to make your future visits simpler for you, while session cookies are deleted when you leave the website or close your browser. When you login, a persistent cookie can be used to keep you logged in for your next visit. They can keep your language settings consistent, as well as do anything listed above.

They also go into what ads you see. Google keeps tabs on what websites you visit, Amazon tracks what products you view most often, and these sites tailor ads to suit what you view. With cookies, the ads you see are relevant to you. You may actually click on them then.

For the advertiser, that means more conversions. For the end user, it means ads that actually benefit you and aren’t useless intrusions.

A lot of cookies go into this internet magic you see. It’s not magic. Just cookies.

Con: Privacy

Have you ever done a virus scan, and had like hundreds of “tracking cookies” pop up in your results? It says they’re harmless, but anything that comes up in a virus scan has to be bad, right?

Well, maybe. Tracking cookies are harmless to your computer. People confuse them for malware or viruses, but cookies cannot harm your computer in any way.

But they can track all of your internet activity. And some people don’t like that.

A tracking cookie is a form of persistent cookie that tracks all of your internet activity and records it. They say Google and Facebook have terabytes of information about us and our internet activity. They get this information from tracking cookies.

They then use this information to understand our habits, and make money off us. Sometimes this information is sold to other sources.

Many people view this negatively, and therefore see cookies as filthy corporate spies that infringe on their privacy rights. I mean, it is kind of creepy that one company can see everything you do on your computer.

Pro: Simplicity

I am a supporter of cookies for this very reason. And it ties very closely with the last pro.

I log onto Twitter and Facebook, like, an inhuman number of times per day. I don’t think a number exists to identify it. I frequently find myself with ten tabs open, all Twitter. I’m a shameless social media addict, yes.

When you ask Twitter to remember your login, that’s a cookie. When I open Twitter umpteen thousand times a day, I can skip that tiresome login routine and jump right to the tweeting. And that’s fabulous.

Same with Facebook. Or your email. Things you use so many times you lose count. Things that drain 70% of your phone battery per day, if you’re anything like me.

Cookies just make things infinity times easier. They save SO MUCH TIME.

So What’s the Verdict?

Are cookies good or bad? I mean, many people don’t want so much intrusion on their privacy, regardless of the benefits.

With so much worry about privacy lately, some sites have decreased the extent of tracking that goes into their cookies, giving us some of our privacy back. Such moves make cookies simpler to swallow, pun intended.

There are of course ways that you can manage your own privacy, also.

Personally, I’m not as protective of my own internet privacy. If intensive tracking leads to more personalization, I’m all for it. I don’t have much to lose. If Google really wants to know which Kardashian gossip blogs I’m reading, they can track me.

And the simplicity that comes with cookies, I mean… it’s completely worth it for me.

What are your thoughts? This is definite a hot button issue, with the recent privacy concerns and the NSA and all.