The Cookie Monster

Written by 5ivecanons Staff

The future of web cookies and their role in advertising.

Web cookies were originally created to enhance the user experience by storing data within browsers, and then using it to serve customized content and services based on users’ previous sessions. The capabilities of cookies quickly attracted advertisers, who started utilizing them as a targeting method to match browsing habits with profiles of user interests.

Cookies can benefit marketers in several ways:

  • Limit the number of times an ad is shown to a user
  • Enable ads to appear in a particular order
  • Remember the pages a user has visited
  • Tell how many times an ad was shown on a site
  • Track how many users visited a site

We know that cookies can help advertisers reach their audiences more effectively by matching ads with users who have a browsing history of that interest. But how exactly does a cookie work?

A cookie is a piece of text that a web server can store within a user’s browser and later retrieve it. When a website allows third-party advertising, it puts the ads together by directing browsers to pull from the third-party’s ad servers. Those servers create cookies which are then stored in users’ browsers. Cookies are not programs; they can’t gather information on their own. Websites can only retrieve a cookie’s text information that has previously been placed on a user’s browser.

Some sites like Google allow other websites to partner with them and display ads to visitors. They’ll collect and share data such as user web requests, IP address, browser type, browser language, data and time of request, and one or more cookies that may uniquely define a user. The practice of using cookies has drawn the attention of privacy advocates who object to the collection of data without permission from users.

More and more cookie-management software is being created (Cookie Crusher, Cookie Cutter, etc.) that give users the ability to selectively allow or block cookies from sites of their choosing. In the meantime, new methods are being designed to replace cookies as a less intrusive form of data collection. Open Profiling Standard (OPS) is a voluntary based method that allows users to create and fill out their own profiles, thus protecting their privacy but still allowing advertisers some access to data. Even Google is looking to replace third-party cookies with anonymous identifiers, which will be transmitted to advertisers who have agreed to the guidelines. This will give consumers more privacy and control over how they browse the web.

Advertisers can not only track engagement with cookies, but can also see how their websites are being used. Tactics like heat maps can show where visitors are clicking the most and how far they are scrolling down. Online services such as Crazy Egg make this information available to advertisers and can help make websites more successful and better for consumer engagement. In the image below, you can see this strategy used for one of our clients, Liquid Soul, in order to better understand the level of engagement and clicking patterns of visitors.

To learn more about tracking methods, see our blog post on neighborhood tracking methods.