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Cookies are small files that a web server automatically sends to your computer’s web browser (think Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer) when you browse certain websites. Cookies are stored as text files on your hard drive, and servers access them when you return to web sites you’ve visited before. The information in the cookie file travels back and forth between the browser it’s stored on and the websites you visit.

When you visit a site you’ve been to before, your browser automatically sends the original cookie that was stored back to the site you’re visiting, allowing that website to recognize your computer and tailor your online experience accordingly.

Basically, as your visit different sites online, you collect cookies–it happens all the time. It’s sort of like walking into your favorite restaurant, and having the waiter recognize you and remember that you like your water with lemon and you’re a huge fan of that cool table by the window. All search engines and most sites use cookies to tailor your experience to some degree–to remember your preferences, keep your selections in your virtual shopping cart, and maintain your time zone or location. Cookies tend to save you time and make your browsing experience better.

It’s important to note that like most cookies, AdRoll’s cookies contain no personally identifiable information. They do not contain your name, email address, or phone number.  They don’t know you from Adam. Cookies cannot be used to run programs remotely, get information about you from your hard drive, or give your computer viruses.

The Full Cookie Monty


The cookies just described above are called first-party cookies. However, there are also third-party cookies. Unlike first-party cookies, third-party cookies are those same small text files but these travel between your browser and the website of a company that’s displaying ads on the page you’re visiting. Considering that most people spend only 10% of their time on search engines, and the other 90% browsing, you see a lot of display ads served this way.

Ad serving companies use these cookies to keep track of what ads you’ve seen, or what ads your browser has been exposed to. This helps advertisers and solutions providers, like AdRoll, deliver ads that are relevant to your browsing habits. Solutions providers use cookies to help them control the number of times you see an ad and track the effectiveness of individual campaigns. When used correctly for retargeting campaigns, cookies allow advertisers to track who came to their site and continue to access these potential customers after they exit the website, serving these potential customers ads on other sites they visit later.

Consumers have a lot more power than they realize. If you don’t feel comfortable having this non-personally identifiable information stored, or you don’t want to see more relevant ads, it’s easy to set up your browser preferences to let you know when a website wants to place a cookie, or to refuse cookies altogether. Most sites that do retargeting, including AdRoll, have prominent links on their privacy pages so you can opt out. Net Lingo does a good job illustrating how to clean out your cookie files.

If you’d like to learn more about how cookie targeting differs from IP targeting, you can check out RollWorks’ great infographic here.