Cookies and How Websites use them

This section can be skipped by those who do not want to get into too many of the details of how cookies work and what they are. Alternatively, you may browse through it quickly – just to get a general overview. However, this is not compulsory and required in any way.

What are cookies?

When you visit a website, the website can store a small one line text data in your pc in a file called cookies.txt, which is located in your browsers folder. This single line of text data can only be accessed only by the site that stored it, and it cannot be accessed by another site.

What good are cookies to the Net surfer?

Well, simply put, cookies can track user behavior that can be used by the website operators in knowing more about their visitors. Amongst other things, a cookie can store data on –

  • how often you visit a site
  • when was the last time you visited the site
  • store your login and password information
  • how much time you spend on an average on the website
  • which banner ads you have seen.

Understandably, all this data is very useful for sites operators, and with it they can enrich the user experience and send out non-repeating offers (via banner ads thereby reducing the “burn rate” of a banner ad).

Sometimes electronic shopping carts requre cookies so that they can track what you add or remove in your online “shopping bag”. They may even track which banner ads you clicked on, and accordingly serve you banners that you have not already seen or clicked on. Some affilaite networks use cookies to track the referring affiliate that sent the visitor to the merchant’s website, so even if they come 10 days later and purchase something – the referring member gets their commission.

How do ad networks use cookies to their advantage?

When you see a banner that is displayed in a webpage, your cookie data file is accessible by that website only. But, since the ad network has stored the banner on their own servers and served it from there, they are able to track you by inserting a cookie from their own main server’s site. When you visit other sites on the same ad network, their banners also get pulled from the ad-network server and hence your earlier cookie data can be accessed. Ad-networks also track, which banners you have seen, and make sure that when the “banner burn-out level” is crossed, they serve you a new set of fresh banners. They can track which banners you have clicked on, and accordingly learn more about you. All this data can be mined and analyzed to serve you banners that you would click on with a higher probability – thereby maximizing ROI (Return On Investment) for the Ad-network’s Client / Advertiser.

Sometimes, an Ad-network’s Client may want to store the actual banner ad on their own server – so they can see a verified statistic of the number of “hits” the banner gets. In this case, the Ad-network will use cookies to enable tracking of users. They simple serve a 1pixel by 1pixel invisible image from their own servers along with the banner ad from the Client’s server – into the surfer’s browser. This 1pixel by 1pixel invisible banner enables the Ad-network to still track users across multiple sites by using the same cookies data method described earlier.

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