(Website) Cookies 101: A Bite-Sized Guide

December 20, 2023 by Emily Parker in Business, Web Development

Imagine the internet as a grand bakery, and your website as a delicious treat. Now, think of website cookies as the secret ingredient that can make or break your creation. In this post, we'll take you on a journey through the world of website cookies, what they are, what they do, and why you should offer an easy way for your visitors to consent to them. Let's dive in and ensure you don't end up with a crumb-y cookie plugin.

Website cookies are small pieces of data stored on a user's device (typically in their web browser) while they interact with your website. These digital morsels serve various functions, such as remembering user preferences and login details, tracking site usage, and personalizing/enhancing the user experience.

Cookies come in different forms, such as session cookies that expire when the user closes their browser and persistent cookies that have a set expiration date. Websites use cookies to remember user login credentials, personalize content, and track user behavior for analytics and advertising purposes. For example, when you log into your favorite social media platform and it remembers your login information for your next visit, that's due to cookies. Additionally, cookies enable websites to provide a consistent and tailored experience by storing information like language preferences, shopping cart items, and more.

Why Are Website Cookies Used?

1. Enhanced User Experience:

  •  Functional website cookies help customize content for individual visitors, making their experience more personal and enjoyable.
  •  They help your site remember user states and preferences, such as whether or not you’re still logged in, what language you prefer, location settings and more, ensuring a seamless visit every time.

2. Tracking and Analytics:

  •  Cookies are essential for tracking user behavior and website performance, providing invaluable insights into what works and what needs improvement.
  •  They help you make data-driven decisions to optimize your site's performance and user engagement.

3. Advertising and Marketing:

  •  Cookies enable targeted advertising by tracking user interests and behavior.
  •  They allow you to create more effective marketing campaigns and retarget users who have shown interest in your products or services.

In short, there are many types of cookies, and they’re all designed to do different things, but the bottom line is that the non-necessary cookies tell the website owner more about their users, which enables them to tailor their website more closely to that demographic and/or helps them address particular needs or pain points. This helps create a better online user experience for everyone. (By non-necessary, we mean cookies that aren’t integral to the functionality of your website.)

“All these websites have asked me to accept their cookies, but I still haven’t received a single one!”
~ Unknown Author

Are Cookies Really Tracking Me?

Yes, but don’t let that give you a (chocolate) chip on your shoulder. Cookies do not store PII (Personally Identifiable Information) such as your name, address, email, password, or credit card details. What they’re mostly tracking is your behavior - do you ever search on Google for a product, then log into your social media and see an ad for that very product? Eerie, right? Behavioral advertising uses cookies to target ads based on your search history, browsing habits, and more.

It’s not a perfect system, which is why you might see ads for the socks you just bought last week. It’s marketing 101 - if you show people ads for things you think they might be interested in based on the context of their habits (and you’re correct), you’re more likely to make a sale. For example, if I see that my user often checks football scores online, and I have a choice of two ads to show them, it makes more sense to show them an ad to buy a football jersey or tickets to a game, than it would to show them an ad for chicken soup recipes.

Types of Cookies and What they are Used For

There are several types of cookies, each serving specific functions in web development and user experience. Here are some common types of cookies and their respective purposes:

1. Session Cookies: These cookies are temporary and exist only during a user's session on a website. They are often used to maintain session data, such as shopping cart contents or login credentials, so users don't have to re-enter information on every page.

2. Persistent Cookies: Persistent cookies have a specified expiration date and remain on a user's device even after they close the browser. They are used for purposes like remembering login information, language preferences, or personalized settings for future visits.

3. Secure Cookies: Secure cookies are used to transmit sensitive data, such as login credentials and financial information, securely over HTTPS connections. They help protect data from unauthorized access.

4. HTTP-Only Cookies: These cookies are designed to be accessible only through HTTP requests and not via JavaScript. They are used to enhance security by preventing cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.

5. Third-Party Cookies: Third-party cookies are set by domains other than the one the user is currently visiting. They are often used for tracking and advertising, allowing advertisers to follow users across different websites.

6. First-Party Cookies: First-party cookies are set by the domain the user is currently visiting. They are typically used for essential website functions like session management and user authentication.

7. Analytical Cookies: These cookies collect data on user behavior and website performance. They are used for analytics and help website owners understand how users interact with their site, enabling data-driven decisions for improvements.

8. Advertising Cookies: Advertising cookies are used to track user interests and behavior, enabling targeted advertising. They are often employed by advertising networks to display relevant ads to users.

9. Functional Cookies: Functional cookies enhance the user experience by remembering user preferences, such as font size, layout, or custom settings, to make the website more user-friendly.

10. Strictly Necessary Cookies: These cookies are essential for the basic functionality of a website. They help with tasks like session management, security, and accessibility features.

11. Performance Cookies: Performance cookies monitor website performance by collecting data on page load times and response times. This information is used to optimize site performance.

12. Targeting Cookies: Targeting cookies are used for personalized advertising and tracking user behavior for marketing purposes. They help deliver relevant content and promotions to specific user segments.

Understanding these different types of cookies and their purposes is essential for website owners, as it allows them to manage user data responsibly and comply with data protection regulations like GDPR and CCPA. It's also important to provide transparency and give users the option to consent to the use of cookies for non-essential purposes.

Image Credit: Flickr

Does My Website Need a Cookie Policy?

Whether your website needs a cookie policy largely depends on its functionality, the type of data it collects, and the legal requirements that apply to your jurisdiction. In general, if your website uses cookies to collect or process any form of user data, it's advisable to have a cookie policy in place. Here are some key considerations to help you determine if your website needs a cookie policy:

  • Data Collection: If your website uses cookies to collect information such as user preferences, login details, analytics data, or any other personally identifiable information, you should have a cookie policy. It's essential to inform users about what data is collected, how it's used, and whether it's shared with third parties.
  • Legal Requirements: Many countries and regions, such as the European Union (EU), have strict data protection regulations that require websites to obtain user consent for cookies and provide clear information on data usage. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy Directive are examples of such laws. Failing to comply with these regulations can result in legal consequences and fines.
  • Transparency and User Trust: Even if not mandated by law, having a cookie policy is a best practice for fostering user trust and transparency. It shows that you respect user privacy and are committed to providing a clear understanding of how their data is handled. This can help enhance your website's reputation and build trust with your audience.

While the need for a cookie policy varies depending on factors like data collection and legal requirements, it's generally a good practice to have one in place. By doing so, you not only adhere to privacy regulations but also demonstrate your commitment to transparency and user privacy, ultimately benefiting your website and its users. It's advisable to seek legal advice or consult relevant data protection authorities to ensure full compliance with the laws applicable to your specific situation. At White Whale Web, we’ve done extensive research in this arena and can guide you towards the best solution for your website.


In the grand bakery of the internet, website cookies are the secret ingredients that can transform your website into a delightful treat for your visitors. Understanding what they are, their importance, and how to implement cookie consent is vital for both user experience and legal compliance. With the right approach and the best cookie consent plugins for WordPress, you can ensure your website is both user-friendly and legally sound. So, don't let your website crumble; make sure your cookie game is on point.