HTTP Cookies Explained

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HTTP Cookies

HTTP cookies are a fundamental technology for the internet today. They have an impact on many things, including privacy and user experience. Everyone has heard of them, but not many people know what an HTTP cookie does or how it works.

You might be missing out on various opportunities due to your lack of knowledge of cookies. Don’t worry, though – we are here to share with you some essential information that you can instantly use to your advantage.

So, let’s start from the top.

What is an HTTP cookie?

HTTP cookies are small data pieces put in the form of text files. They can be a password, username, address, phone number, etc. In most cases, HTTP cookies help websites recognize your computer as you use their service. HTTP cookies provide a better user experience to internet users.

Cookies are sent between a web server and the user’s browser. It’s impossible to imagine modern web development without cookies. Lots of pages use cookies for the functions they provide. Without them, it would be possible to provide users what they need.

Why the need for this data going back and forth between servers and browsers? It helps identify individual users and remember important information about them. However, not all cookies memorize personal data – they can also store important settings that provide better service.

How do these cookies work?

When you connect to a server, the data is created and stored within a text file. A unique ID is assigned to your data so that it can be connected to your computer in the future. Your computer exchanges the cookie with the server and connects it with the ID to provide (extract) relevant data.

All cookies are just simple, plain text, not code that can be executed. The information sent from the browser to the web server is sent with clearly established rules. As a concept, cookies aren’t harmful. They are used to give a smoother user experience and avoid bugging internet users with additional steps.

However, when they collect personal data, the site needs to ask for user permission and explain how cookies will use their data. Sadly, some sites use cookies to track users without consent and don’t even inform them about any cookies.

Main uses of HTTP cookies

HTTP cookies make users’ lives easier. When someone leaves a site with their shopping cart full, the cookie remembers their choices and lets them continue their shopping. On the other hand, when you login into a site, you won’t have to type in your credentials every next time – an HTTP cookie does this for you.

Due to these capabilities, cookies are often used for:

Tracking relevant information

Websites can benefit a lot from tracking user activity. For example, an e-commerce site can track which items a visitor has checked. Based on their activity, they can suggest other relevant products and even bundle offers.

Giving personalized experience

Based on user’s activity and actions on a site tracked through cookies, sites can send relevant ads for products or services they might enjoy.

Managing session

With cookies, websites can quickly identify users that have access to their services. Sites will draw their credentials and help them login without having to do anything. Set-ups and preferences that the user saved will also be remembered.

Web scraping

One example of how cookies can be used for scraping is to keep the scraper logged in permanently on a site so that there is no need to manually access the site.

HTTP cookies and web scraping

Web scraping is the process of extracting public data online. Web scraping is done using bot software that goes through websites in an automated fashion and extracts specific data sets in a structured manner. However, since cookies mandate how someone uses a site, they can also impact these bots.

The relationship between scraping and HTTP cookies has been discovered only recently. One of the most common methods of utilizing cookies and their parameters is to use the “session object” function of the Python request module.

You can also use one TCP repeatedly to access and scrap the same site, which is done by reusing the same HTTP connection. With this method, it is possible to save a lot of time when scraping and avoid any issues caused by cookies.

Conclusion

Proper cookie management can be beneficial in so many ways. It can protect you from being tracked or spammed with ads. It can also help you adjust your website to improve the user experience or prevent your web scraping efforts from being blocked.

If you plan on doing any of these things, make sure to take HTTP cookies into account and set them up accordingly.

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