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Everything You Need to Know About Session Cookies

By Anas Baig | Reviewed By Maria Khan
Published August 7, 2023 / Updated December 13, 2023

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A memorable and positive user experience on any website relies heavily on the user navigating the site seamlessly without any issues—the slightest of glitches can put that user experience in jeopardy. An example of a glitch would be if a user adds an item to their shopping cart, and the moment they move on to another webpage, their cart is empty again.

To ensure something like this does not occur, almost all websites use session cookies. They have an extraordinarily succinct but vital role in ensuring a smooth user experience on websites.

What is a Session Cookie?

A session cookie is a simple text file that a website installs on its visitor's device for temporary use. It helps track real-time changes in a user's activity while on a website, such as adding items while shopping on e-commerce websites. Most websites have session cookies enabled by default, as it helps the web pages load faster and makes navigation easy for the user.

Also known as a transient cookie or a temporary cookie, a session cookie is only active during each browsing session and is programmed to be automatically deleted at the end of each browsing session when the user exits the web browser. Users can also restrict the use of session cookies during their browsing sessions manually.

However, doing so can often have a detrimental effect on the overall browsing experience and the website's performance.

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How Does a Session Cookie Work?

A session cookie is server-specific. This means that a session cookie cannot be read or accessed by any machine other than the one that generated the cookie. The server in question is the one that hosts the website a user visits. The same server also creates a "session ID". The session ID is a unique, randomly generated number that stores the session cookies.

Session cookies track the user's behavior on the website and help websites identify users browsing through the web pages of a website. The website analytics tool would consider each visit as a new session if it wasn't for session cookies.

Session cookies help create a better browsing experience by showing them potentially interesting items based on their browsing activities. These cookies also help a website identify every user throughout their browsing session. In other words, session cookies can be considered the memory of a website.

What are Session Cookies used for?

The most common example of a session cookie is the shopping cart that nearly all e-commerce websites use. A user may browse a website for hours, scrolling through hundreds of items, adding or removing them from his cart, or adjusting their quantities. Session cookies enable real-time updates to the cart throughout their browsing session.

Also, without session cookies, cart items would not carry through to the checkout phase because no shopping activity would be remembered. However, when a user logs out of his account or closes his browser, the cart does not retain any items. If the user wants to retain the items in his cart after logging out or closing the browser, he will need to enable persistent cookies.

Perhaps the only significant difference between a session and a persistent cookie is the ability to retain data after a session has ended. A session cookie will store all user activity data for a particular browsing session as long as the session is active. Conversely, a persistent cookie will retain your information over a predefined period, regardless of how many times a user logs out of the site or closes the browser.

Session Cookies Example

The most obvious example of session cookies is on online shopping sites of all kinds. Users can add items to their shopping cart by browsing various pages. Throughout their browsing session, the cart retains all their selections until they are ready to check out.

Session cookies are essential to remembering these selections. They are also why users often can add items to their shopping carts on these sites without having to log in first. And once they do log in with their credentials, the session cookies ensure their shopping carts retain the items they added.

Not only does this play an essential role in elevating users' online shopping experience, but it is also crucial for the website's functionality since the users wouldn't be able to buy anything at all if the shopping cart did not remember the items they had added.

In short, no.

Session cookies are considered strictly necessary cookies. Hence, per most data regulations, such as the GDPR, websites do not need to gain users' consent to set them on their devices. However, it is considered good practice to inform the users that such types of cookies are being used via either the cookie policy, privacy policy, or a general cookie consent banner.

Additionally, information about why session cookies are important and what makes them so fundamental to a user's browsing experience should help alleviate user concerns about session cookies. 

Check If Your Website Uses Session Cookies

Checking what cookies a website uses is relatively simple, but it can differ slightly depending on which browser a user uses.

For the most part, here's what you'll need to do:

  • Head over to the website you want to check, right-click anywhere on the website and select "Inspect Element".
  • Click on Applications under the Console tab.
  • Click on Cookies under the Storage menu.
  • You should see a list of all open websites. 
  • Click on the website you want to check, and you'll have an entire list of all cookies used by that website in the current browsing session.

How Can Securiti Help?

Users' privacy and data protection are of paramount importance in today’s digital-first business world. To retain and strengthen their users' trust and show their commitment to user data privacy, businesses must implement concrete data governance practices.

This practice includes the appropriate use of cookies to enhance the browsing experience of their users without compromising their right to privacy and by eliciting proper consent.

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Hence, a robust cookie consent management solution is a necessity for any business that wants to strike a balance between the appropriate collection of data and their users' privacy. Securiti is a market leader in offering enterprise solutions to cookie consent with its PrivacyOps framework. Its AI and machine-learning-based tools help any business looking to appropriate its cookie consent management.

Request a demo today to see how Securiti's tools can help your company.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Importance of Session Cookies: Session cookies are crucial for providing a seamless and positive user experience on websites, especially for tasks like maintaining items in a shopping cart during a browsing session.
  2. Definition and Function: A session cookie is a temporary text file placed on a user's device by a website to track real-time changes in user activity. It's essential for fast page loading and easy navigation, and it's deleted when the browsing session ends or the browser is closed.
  3. Session Cookie Operations: These cookies are server-specific, meaning they can only be read by the server that created them. They use a unique session ID to track user behavior across a website, essentially serving as the website's memory for the duration of a visit.
  4. Applications of Session Cookies: The primary use case is in e-commerce shopping carts, where session cookies update the cart in real-time and ensure items are retained throughout the browsing session. Without session cookies, users would experience a significant drop in website functionality and user experience.
  5. Persistent vs. Session Cookies: The main difference lies in data retention; session cookies are temporary, while persistent cookies save user data across sessions. This distinction is crucial for functionality like keeping items in a shopping cart across different visits.
  6. Consent and Regulation Compliance: Session cookies are categorized as strictly necessary, so websites do not typically need to obtain user consent before setting them. However, informing users about their use through privacy policies or consent banners is considered best practice.
  7. Checking for Session Cookies: Users can inspect a website's cookies through their browser's "Inspect Element" tool, offering transparency into what cookies are used during their browsing session.
  8. Securiti's Role: The company provides solutions for cookie consent management, balancing data collection needs with privacy concerns, emphasizing the importance of data governance practices for businesses in the digital era.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A session cookie, also known as a transient cookie, is a temporary cookie that's erased from your device once you close your web browser. Session cookies are typically used to maintain user-specific information during a single visit to a website, such as login credentials or items in a shopping cart. They do not persist beyond the current session and are often considered less invasive to user privacy.

Session cookies are temporary and exist only for a single browsing session, deleted when the browser is closed, while persistent cookies remain on a user's device for a set time, even after the browser is closed. Session cookies are typically used for short-term tasks like storing login credentials or shopping cart items, posing fewer privacy concerns. Persistent cookies, however, serve various purposes, including tracking user behavior and displaying targeted ads, potentially raising privacy issues due to prolonged data collection, and require more robust legal compliance and consent mechanisms to adhere to data protection laws.

Session cookies are typically set automatically by websites when you visit them and are managed by your web browser. Developers can also set them using programming languages like JavaScript.

Session cookies offer advantages like temporary data storage for user preferences and session state, improved website performance, user convenience, lower bandwidth usage, enhanced security due to automatic expiry, simplified code management, compliance with privacy regulations, support for multi-tab and multi-window browsing, customization for personalized content, and increased user engagement, making them valuable tools for web development and user experience enhancement.

Yes, session cookies expire after the browsing session ends or after a short period of inactivity. This helps ensure that temporary data doesn't accumulate unnecessarily on users' devices.

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