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Using Cookies on Your Website

first_imgThe Question:I need to know the ZIP code of each person that accesses our website. My webmaster is insistent on not using “cookies.” Do you have any recommendations on how to get this information? Should we create an opening page where the viewer types in their Zip code, then enters the site?The Answer:Unfortunately, “cookies” have been the subject of malicious rumor mongering. The worst and most popular rumor accuses cookies of stealing personal information from users’ computers and making it available to other websites that the user visits. This rumor, like most of the others, is entirely false. Cookies do raise some legitimate privacy concerns, however, so it is important to understand how they function when deciding whether to use them.Cookies are small files that store information that you (the Web surfer) provide. Cookies can be used to remember any information you submit on an online form. The controversy surrounds information you provided without realizing it – either because you were not informed, or because the information is provided automatically by your browser. Some of the information provided automatically includes the name and IP address of your computer, the brand of browser you’re using, the operating system you’re running, the URL of the Web page you accessed, and the URL of the page you were last viewing. So, any time you are visiting a website, you are providing some descriptive information about your personal computer and software. If this website uses cookies, it may be storing this information on your computer for its own later use.A cookie cannot be designed to run commands, such as looking through your hard drive or infecting files with viruses. A cookie can only be read by the server that created the cookie. As you travel the Web, the information left in various cookies on your computer cannot be read by other sites that had no part in creating the cookies.Typically, a visitor to a website that uses cookies will be assigned a unique identifier that is stored both within the cookie and inside a database on the website. This way, the visitor can be tracked through each page of the website, and their use data can be compared across multiple visits. Cookies can simply the user experience on your site as well as your data tracking by enabling you to ask personal questions only once, then store this information in a cookie on the visitors’ computer. On future visits, the visitor will not need to provide all the same information again.If you do need to track individual visitors’ actions or preferences, you can avoid using cookies by having visitors use an online form to send the information you need to your email account or to a database table. If you decide not to track any unique identifying information on your visitors (for example, only asking for visitor’s Zip codes), then you are guaranteeing their privacy on your site, but also you cannot be sure whether all those 10021 Zip codes you received are from the same visitor or from unique visitors, or how they visited your site.If you plan to ask for and/or track any personal information of your Web visitors using cookies or online forms, it is important to develop a privacy policy and post it online so visitors can know what to expect and what you plan to do with their information. In most cases it is more practical to store the personal information you collect in a secured database that can help you generate informative statistics. A privacy policy becomes especially important when you are asking users to provide additional personal information, such as name, contact information, birth dates, etc.With the rapid rise of e-commerce and online marketing, cookies have become standard elements of the Web experience. In order to provide you with content specific to your personal preferences, companies are using cookies more and more. An understanding of how cookies can be used, and being aware of the responsibilities you have regarding the privacy of your visitors, will serve you better than avoiding cookies altogether.Some good resources on cookies and privacy statements:HTML GoodiesCookie CentralTrust-eSource: http://www.techsoup.org/community/qod_answer.cfm?qotdid=169last_img

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