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The Pros and Cons of 1st and 3rd Party Cookies

Mark Thompson June 23, 2008

A Cookie is a pretty easy concept to understand. It is simply a tracking code that is stored on the user’s computer for a determined amount of time to track their ID session, navigation, and preferences. Where is can be a bit confusing is when you talk about the different types of cookies. There are two different types of cookies, dependent on what type of website sets them.

I wanted to give you an in-depth definition of what a cookie is and the pros and cons associated with each.


Definition of a Cookie?

Information created by a Web server and stored on a user’s computer. Some web sites use cookies to identify visitors to that site, enabling more personalized information to be served upon return to the site. A Cookie can contain information such as user ID, user preferences, archive shopping cart information, browser, operating system, etc. Users can prevent web sites from assigning cookies by adjusting options with the client’s browser.

A cookie can be stored on your computer for a minute, a day, a week, a month. It really just depends on the cookie. A typical analytics cookie will be stored for usually 30-60 days.

There are advantages and disadvantages for both 1st party and 3rd party cookies. Let me first explain what 1st and 3rd party cookies are and then show you the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1st Party Cookies

1st party cookies are set by the website that the user is visiting.

Pros

  • Remembers the user’s personal information once they have submitted it. Now whenever the user comes back to the site they will not have to re-enter all of their information again.
  • Less frequently blocked and deleted
  • Able to track what people do on your site. See how long they stayed, what keywords they used to find you, how they found you, how many pages they looked at, what pages they were on, track if they signed up or purchased something, etc…
  • Great for serving up personalized content that is geared towards that specific user’s preferences
  • Since the cookie can record what the user purchased it is great for cross selling and add-on items
    • Amazon does a great job of this. They have recommended items that they list based on your previous searches and purchases.
  • Gain insight on which pages are performing better and which need improvement

Cons

  • Unable to see what user’s do once they leave your site

  • You are not able to track individual users on the same computer, unless they have their own login credentials

3rd Party Cookies

3rd party cookies are set by a 3rd party domain, like a web analytics company or online campaign management solution. For example if someone visits yoursite.com, that information will be routed to webanalyticscompany.com. 3rd party cookies can be used for banner ads, text ads, or any other 3rd party website.

Pros

  • Able to track a user across multiple websites
  • Easier to identify what the user did after they visited your site
  • Great for marketing research and identifying which marketing campaigns were successful

Cons

  • Many 3rd party cookies get blocked, recognizing them as spam
  • A cookies information can be stolen if the session in unencrypted
  • There could be other tracking options that a 3rd party company add to the cookie that you are not aware of
  • Anti-Spyware programs will most likely delete the cookie

Jupiter Research conducted a study on how often users delete their cookies. From their study 58% of users delete their cookies regularly, with 40% of those deleting them every month. With that in mind, no analytics package will ever be 100%. With people deleting their cookies, it will record a visitor who visits more than once as a unique visitor. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do if user’s do not accept cookies or if they delete their cookies regularly.

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