On my first visit to a new web site I'm usually in a hurry to make a reservation, download a file or just look up a quick contact phone number. In each case, my goal is to get to the right web page with as few clicks of my mouse as possible. In urgent moments like these I cringe when I see the "Please select your region" dialog box appear above a map of the world. After clicking the mouse on the map's correct hemisphere, country and then language, I eventually get to the place in the web site that I wanted to reach.

What I often overlook is that the next time I visit this website, the interrogation usually doesn't happen thanks to a useful tool browsers use called a "cookie."

Due to misinformation, it has become popular for untrained computer users to mistakenly blame cookies for computer problems. The truth is that cookies are not software and cannot be programmed to "do" anything. They do not carry viruses and they do not slow down your computer. Cookies contain only plain text information that helps a web site identify you from its thousands of other visitors so it can customize your visit or remember a checked box or other selection you made on a web page. You can think of a cookie like a maitre d' who remembers your favorite table and entrée and has both ready when you enter the restaurant. I lift my mug to say "cheers" to the underrated, "over-vilified" cookie.

If you have ever saved items in an online shopping cart and then continued shopping on other web pages, you can probably thank a cookie for retaining the items you wanted to buy when you returned to your cart to check out. Cookies can save lots of useful information about your visit to a web site so your subsequent visits land you where you want to be -much sooner.

Unfortunately, there are cookies that are not designed to help you. Helpful cookies are used only by the web site that sent them to your computer. If a cookie isn't from a web site you visited it is called a third-party cookie. Third-party cookies can attempt to track your surfing habits on multiple sites. They use this information to popup ads based on your surfing habits.

The good news is that most browsers can block third party cookies if you look in the browser's settings. Firefox and Internet Explorer go a step further in allowing you to choose web sites from which you want to accept or reject cookies.

If you are concerned about a particular web site's use of cookies, you can check their Privacy Policy to examine their use of cookies. Reputable web sites will typically place a link for this in the fine print of their front page.

Since it would be unbearably tedious to check the privacy policy of every web page I visit, I simply disable any third party cookies and run a regular scan with anti-spyware software to remove any "tracking" cookies that may be tracking more than they should. You can find an online scanner called "House Call" to do the same at

So go ahead -enjoy a cookie! They can be good for you!

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