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Internet 101: Understanding Browser Data

Internet 101: Understanding Browser Data

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes as you surf the web. You might have heard about things like “cookies,” but do you know what they do or what else your browser is storing?

Whenever you use your browser, the sites you visit and actions you perform result in information being saved. This data is typically used to make navigating the web easier for you in the future.

Many different pieces of information are being stored while you’re online. Cookies are just one part of the equation. There’s also your browser’s cache, history, autofill information, saved passwords, and even more little bits of data.

Why does it matter?

You might be asking why you need to know about your browser data. Depending on the situation, you might want to change certain browser settings or learn how to clear your data. Understanding your browser data can do the following:

  • Avoid privacy or security issues
  • Help you make the right decisions with your settings
  • Underline the importance of clearing your data
  • Help you decide what data to clear
  • Show you how some websites work
  • Make it easier to troubleshoot problems

Also, many people use a browser on their computer, phone, or tablet every day. That’s a lot of data. It’s important to stay informed and know what’s being saved.

What data is being stored?

A lot of different kinds of information get stored while you’re using the web. In this article, let’s talk about some of the biggest types of data being saved, including how they work and what to watch out for.

Internet cookies

You’ve almost certainly heard about cookies over the years. You also may have noticed that some websites alert their visitors to let them know they use cookies. But what are they?

A cookie is made up of data. Whenever you visit a website that uses cookies, a cookie is sent to a file in your browser. Then when you revisit that site, the cookie is sent back to it. Essentially, cookies are a way for a website to remember you or certain information it was given.

What’s typically being communicated is information about what you’re doing on the site. Cookies help keep track of visits to a certain website, certain pieces of information, and things like what’s in your cart at an online shop. For instance, when you go back to a website and see your login information has been saved, it’s likely that cookies were used to do this.

There are two main types of cookies you should know—session cookies and persistent cookies. Session cookies are stored temporarily. Once a “session” is over, the session cookie is gone. This means you simply need to close out of your browser to lose the cookie. Persistent cookies, though, stick around. These are the kinds of cookies that help do things like save login information or preferences you’ve indicated on a website.

Though cookies are very helpful, it is possible for unwanted cookies to collect data about your visits and then be used in ways that aren’t helpful to you. For instance, some cookies can be used to keep track of your interests and show you ads based on those interests. This practice is concerning to some people. One way to try to combat this is to see if your browser allows you to block third-party cookies. These cookies are sent to your browser from a source other than the website you’re on—often from an ad on the page.

However, for the most part, it’s typically recommended to allow your browser to accept cookies. If you’re visiting safe websites, you’re probably not encountering unwanted cookies. They make visiting sites a much easier and enjoyable experience, as well.

History

Your browser history is pretty straightforward: it displays the sites you’ve visited in the past. Your history is a recording of the sites you’ve gone to, including the name of the page and when you visited. Depending on your browser, your history might go back to pages you visited months ago. This can be really helpful to you, because if you forget to bookmark a site, you can always go back and find it in your history.

Cache

If you’ve ever been told to “clear the cache,” you might have done so while wondering what you were even deleting. The browser cache is a way to save certain things on websites in order to load things more quickly and efficiently in the future. Pages or pictures on a website might be saved to the cache. This means that if you visit a site and certain images are saved to the cache, then the next time you try to load another page on the site with those images on it, they won’t have to be accessed from the website all over again—they’ll just be displayed from the browser cache.

This can be really helpful if you’re clicking through multiple pages on a website and there’s, say, an image at the top of each page being used as a banner. You won’t have to load it from the website every single time you click on a new page. Not only does this mean that things load more quickly for you, it also means it takes a bit of stress off the website’s server.

Autofill

Autofill data is typically form information that’s saved for later. Think about all the times you’ve entered your address in a form. Storing autofill data means that next time you need to enter your address, you might not have to type it all back in again. This works with all kinds of information. Different areas (or “fields”) of a form often have names assigned to them. Autofill can use these names to identify which field to enter each piece of information into, so it won’t accidentally put your city in the field asking for your phone number.

Saved passwords

Some browsers can also save your passwords for you. If you’re using different passwords for each different account you have (which you should—take a look at my article about managing your passwords!), then those passwords can be difficult to keep track of. You often have the option to let your browser remember the password for you. This password data is typically saved to just that certain browser on that specific computer.

Though it’s likely tempting to take this option, be careful! If you’re using a shared computer, others will have access to your accounts. Keep this in mind, and make sure you never save your password to the browser if strangers will have access to it.

What you can do with your browser data

Now that you know about some of the data your browser is storing, you can make some informed decisions. Data takes up some space on your devices, and some of the stored data may be totally useless to you (or even completely unwanted), depending on how you typically use your browser. The good news is, you do have some choices when it comes to your browser data.

Change your settings

Most browsers allow you to change your settings to fit your needs. For instance, you can choose to block third-party cookies, or, if you want, even block all internet cookies. You might also want to turn autofill on or off. Depending on your browser, you can likely edit your autofill information, as well. If you have a new address, you can update your old autofill information. If you saved some information on accident, you can delete it. You can also turn saved passwords off and on, as well as delete passwords. Most of this data can be managed in some way.

In Chrome, you can find these kinds of options in your Settings under the Advanced section. In Firefox, these options can be found in the Options under Privacy & Security. Similar settings can be found in most popular browsers.

Clear some or all of your data

You can clear your browser data as often as suits you. Unless you’re having issues with your browser, you probably don’t really need to clear your data. On the typical PC, browser data doesn’t usually take up that much space. Of course, phones and tablets can be a completely different story. If you don’t have much space left on your phone, clearing your browser history actually can make a notable difference.

Also, you can clear data if you have any privacy concerns. If you share your device, you might want to clear your history. (You can also bypass this altogether by using something like Chrome’s incognito mode, which prevents browser data from being saved while in use.)

You can typically choose which data to delete and how far back you’d like to go. For instance, you might only want to delete your history so you keep your cache and cookies for easier browsing. You could delete just some of your recent history, or you could delete it all. Take a look in your browser’s settings to see which options you can choose from!