Using Tracking Cookies for Web Analytics

Heath Bertini

HTTP cookies, sometimes called browser cookies or web cookies, are a widely-used tracking device for internet analytics.  These cookies consist of coded data used to identify unique visitors and his or her number of visits to a webpage. However, while most cookies serve the same purpose, they do not necessarily have the same functionality. Even more, their utility may very well become obsolete in the next few years.

Cookie Types

The following cookie types vary by location and lifespan. Their capabilities make them more useful in specific marketing and research scenarios.

  • Transient (Session) Cookie

Transient cookies, commonly referred to as session cookies, group cookies in a single visit for analysis. The cookie is set when the visit starts a session on a website and ends as soon as the user leaves the page. Session cookies store data in the temporary memory of a computer in the form of a session identification code. This code will track clicks, browsing behavior, length of visit and sales conversions.

  • Persistent (User) Cookie

Persistent cookies, or user cookies, have a lifespan predetermined by the website host. The tracking cookie is stored on a user’s hard drive during their first visit and remains active until deleted or expiration, regardless of other sites the user may browse. User cookies conveniently remember website preferences including  email addresses, passwords and language.

  • First Party vs Third Party Cookie

A first party cookie is set directly by a web analytics tool through a domain. Many popular websites including Gmail, Yahoo! and Facebook require that a visitor enables first party cookies to use their site. A third party cookie is set on the domain of the web analytics host rather than the actual site being visited. Third party cookies are most prevalent in cases where a web analytics host wants to track a user’s behavior for marketing purposes.

Third party cookies are less common than first party cookies because they’re often deleted or rejected. Anti-spamware and malware programs flag them as a threat and auto-delete them in most cases. Thus, first party cookies are considered more effective; however, they do not have the ability to track history on other sites and therefore cannot be used in cases of ad retargeting as third party cookies can.

  • Flash Cookie

Widely known as local shared objects, flash cookies function through Adobe Flash, a software installed on most computers. Flash cookies are growing in popularity because they cannot be deleted or disabled as easily as typical HTTP cookies. They have the same tracking capabilities as a third party cookie but also a lower deletion rate, making them more effective.

What’s Next

Although cookies are highly capable and serve as the primary tracking tool for many, innovations and issues in online tracking technology point to the emergence of new strategies. Do Not Track, an initiative to minimize the violation of privacy that cookies can pose, could become standardized policy in the near future. As a result, Google has made it well-known that they are looking into alternate tools for behavioral research devices that don’t infringe upon a user’s right to privacy. In coming years, advertisers and website hosts will have no choice but to design new analytical devices that bypass the road blocks meant to mitigate the effectiveness of cookies.

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