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Beyond the Sweet Treats: The World of Website Cookies

If you’ve visited a website (which I know you have, haah!), chances are, you’ve likely encountered website cookies. Cookies are the reason for those annoying “Accept Cookies” or “Accept All Cookies” pop-ups that seem to appear everywhere. But have you ever wondered what website cookies actually are and why they’re necessary?

A cookie, HTTP cookie or browser cookie (not the variety we love to eat), is a small text file that a website stores on your computer or mobile device when you visit it. Cookies are used to remember your preferences, login information, and browsing history. When you visit the same website again, the cookie can be retrieved by the website and used to enhance your browsing experience.

There are two types of cookies – session cookies and persistent cookies.

Session cookies are temporary and expire when you close your web browser, while persistent cookies remain on your computer or mobile device until they expire or you delete them manually.

The duration of a cookie’s persistence is set by the website. It can vary based on the website’s settings, and can range from a few minutes to several years. Some websites use persistent cookies to track your online activity and personalize your experience, such as by showing targeted ads or recommending products based on your browsing history.

While it is technically possible to set a cookie to expire in a very long time, such as 100 years, it is not recommended to set a cookie to expire in such a long time, as it may have unintended consequences. It’s generally a good practice to set cookies to expire after a reasonable period of time, such as a few days or a few weeks.

Cookies are designed to store small amounts of data, typically no more than a few kilobytes in size. The maximum size of a cookie can vary depending on the web browser and the operating system being used. However, as a general rule, a cookie should be no larger than 4 KB in size.

The reason for this limitation is that cookies are sent with every HTTP request to the server, and larger cookies can significantly impact the performance and speed of the website. In addition, some web browsers impose stricter size limits on cookies to prevent potential security risks, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.

If you code websites for a living, ensure that your websites remain performant and secure, by keeping cookies as small as possible, ideally under 1 KB. One kilobyte (1 KB) is equal to 1024 bytes of data. The exact number of characters of text that can be stored in 1 KB depends on the encoding used to represent the text. For example, if you are storing plain text using the ASCII encoding, each character takes up one byte of data. Therefore, you could store approximately 1024 characters of text in 1 KB. However, if you are using a more complex encoding scheme, such as UTF-8 or UTF-16, the number of characters that can be stored in 1 KB will vary depending on the specific characters being used.

Keep in mind that the size of a cookie also includes additional data, such as the cookie name and any metadata associated with the cookie (such as the expiration date). Therefore, it’s important to carefully manage the size of your cookies to ensure that they remain efficient and performant.

The structure of data in a cookie is a simple text string that consists of name-value pairs separated by semicolons. A name-value pair is a simple data structure used in computing and programming. It consists of two elements: a name or key, and a value corresponding to it.

Here’s an example of a cookie with three name-value pairs:

cookie_name=cookie_value; expires=Wed, 16 Feb 2024 12:00:00 UTC; path

In this example, the cookie data has three parts:

cookie_name=cookie_value: This is the actual data being stored in the cookie. In this example, the cookie’s name is “cookie_name” and its value is “cookie_value”.

expires=Wed, 16 Feb 2024 12:00:00 UTC: This specifies when the cookie will expire. In this case, the cookie will expire on February 16, 2024 at 12:00:00 UTC. Once the cookie has expired, the website will no longer be able to access the information stored in the cookie.

path: This specifies the URL path on the website where the cookie is valid. Here, the cookie is valid for all pages on the website. However, some cookies may only be valid for specific pages or sections of a website.

Remember, cookies are not a replacement for a database nor a more robust data storage solution. If you need to store large amounts of data or manage complex data relationships, you should consider using a database or a server-side storage solution instead of relying solely on cookies.

The number of cookies that a web browser can store and receive from a website varies depending on the browser and the operating system being used. However, as a general rule, most modern web browsers can store up to several thousand cookies per domain. This limit can change in situations when a website is being accessed over a cellular network.

Most websites do not need to set that many cookies to provide a good user experience. In fact, many websites are designed to function perfectly well without the use of cookies at all. So while cookies can be useful for certain types of websites, they are not a requirement for most websites to function properly.

If you have read this far, I’ve used the word cookie 56 times and it’s not pleasing to the mind. Cookie, cookie, cookie… I feel like I’ve got to eat one right now! Specially one that’s gooey and chocolatey!

Oh, and to sum up this article, if you didn’t know what a cookie is, I mean a web cookie, now you do. They’re these tiny bite sized pieces of data that a website in all fairness, is allowed to store either temporarily or for a specified period of time on your computer. While a website’s designer would aim to improve your web browsing experience using cookies to save data that can be used in future, they may also track and collect personal information without your consent.

In hopes of protecting users’ personal information, policies such as GDPR, require websites to obtain explicit consent before storing or accessing personal data through cookies. They mandate clear and transparent information about the types of cookies used, how they will be used, and user consent before setting any cookies.

But that’s a topic for another article… for now, I’m outta here!

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