Can Local Storage Save Your Website From Cookies?
I can’t imagine that anyone who read my last blog post set a calendar reminder to check for the follow-up post I had promised to write, but if you’re so fascinated by cookies and local storage that you are wondering why I didn’t write it, here is what happened: Kevin and I were asked to speak at Observepoint’s inaugural Validate conference last week, and have been scrambling to get ready for that. For anyone interested in data governance, it was a really unique, and great event. And if you’re not interested in data governance, but you like outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing, etc. – part of what made the event unique was some really great networking time outside of a traditional conference setting. So put it on your list of potential conferences to attend next year.
My last blog post was about some of the common pitfalls that my clients see that are caused by an over-reliance on cookies. Cookies are critical to the success of any digital analytics implementation – but putting too much information in them can even crash a customer’s experience. We talked about why many companies have too many cookies, and how a company’s IT and digital analytics teams can work together to reduce the impact of cookies on a website.
This time around, I’d like to take a look at another technology that is a potential solution to cookie overuse: local storage. Chances are, you’ve at least heard about local storage, but if you’re like a lot of my clients, you might not have a great idea of what it does or why it’s useful. So let’s dive into local storage: what it is, what it can (and can’t) do, and a few great uses cases for local storage in digital analytics.
What is Local Storage?
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, there’s more detail than you could ever hope to want in the specifications document on the W3C website. In fact, the W3C makes an important distinction and calls the actual feature “web storage,” and I’ll describe why in a bit. But most people commonly refer to the feature as “local storage,” so that’s how I’ll be referring to it as well.
The general idea behind local storage is this: it is a browser feature designed to store data in name/value pairs on the client. If this sounds a lot like what cookies are for, you’re not wrong – but there are a few key differences we should highlight:
- Cookies are sent back and forth between client and server on all requests in which they have scope; but local storage exists solely on the client.
- Cookies allow the developer to manage expiration in just about any way imaginable – by providing an expiration timestamp, the cookie value will be removed from the client once that timestamp is in the past; and if no timestamp is provided, the cookie expires when the session ends or the browser closes. On the other hand, local storage can support only 2 expirations natively – session-based storage (through a DOM object called sessionStorage), and persistent storage (through a DOM object called localStorage). This is why the commonly used name of “local storage” may be a bit misleading. Any more advanced expiration would need to be written by the developer.
- The scope of cookies is infinitely more flexible: a cookie could have the scope of a single directory on a domain (like www.analyticsdemystified.com/blogs), or that domain (www.analyticsdemystified.com), or even all subdomains on a single top-level domain (including both www.analyticsdemystified.com and blog.analyticsdemystified.com). But local storage always has the scope of only the current subdomain. This means that local storage offers no way to pass data from one subdomain (www.analyticsdemystified.com) to another (blog.analyticsdemystified.com).
- Data stored in either localStorage or sessionStorage is much more easily accessible than in cookies. Most sites load a cookie-parsing library to handle accessing just the name/value pair you need, or to properly decode and encode cookie data that represents an object and must be stored as JSON. But browsers come pre-equipped to make saving and retrieving storage data quick and easy – both objects come with their own setItem and getItem methods specifically for that purpose.
If you’re curious what’s in local storage on any given site, you can find out by looking in the same place where your browser shows you what cookies it’s currently using. For example, on the “Application” tab in Chrome, you’ll see both “Local Storage” and “Session Storage,” along with “Cookies.”
What Local Storage Can (and Can’t) Do
Hopefully, the points above help clear up some of the key differences between cookies and local storage. So let’s get into the real-world implications they have for how we can use them in our digital analytics efforts.
Use Cases for Local Storage
The key takeaway on local storage is that there are 2 primary limitations to its usefulness:
- If the data to be stored is needed both on the client/browser and the server, local storage does not work – because, unlike cookies, local storage data is not sent to the server on each request.
- If the data to be stored is needed on multiple subdomains, local storage also does not work – because local storage is subdomain-specific. Cookies, on the other hand, are more flexible in scope – they can be written to work across multiple subdomains (or even all subdomains on the same top-level domain).
Given these considerations, what are some valid use cases when local storage makes sense over cookies? Here are a few I came up with (note that all of these assume that neither limitation above is a problem):
- Your IT team has discovered that your Adobe Analytics implementation relies heavily on several cookies, several of which are quite large. In particular, you are using the crossVisitParticipation plugin to store a list of each visit’s traffic source. You have a high percentage of return visitors, and each visit adds a value to the list, which Adobe’s plugin code then encodes. You could rewrite this plugin to store the list in the localStorage object. If you’re really feeling ambitious, you could override the cookie read/write utilities used by most Adobe plugins to move all cookies used by Adobe (excluding visitor ID cookies of course) into localStorage.
- You have a session-based cookie on your website that is incremented by 1 on each page load. You then use this cookie in targeting offers based on engagement, as well as invites to chat and to provide feedback on your site. This cookie can very easily be removed, pushing the data into the sessionStorage object instead.
- You are reaching the limit to the number of Adobe Analytics server calls or Google Analytics hits before you bump up to the next pricing tier, but you have just updated your top navigation menu and need to measure the impact it’s having on conversion. Using your tag management system and sessionStorage, you could “listen” for all navigation clicks, but instead of tracking them immediately, you could save the click information and then read it on the following page. In this way, the click data can be batched up with the regular page load tracking that will occur on the following page (if you do this, make sure to delete the element after using it, so you can avoid double-tracking on subsequent pages).
- You have implemented a persistent shopping cart on your site and want to measure the value and contents of a customer’s shopping cart when he or she arrives on your website. Your IT team will not be able to populate this information into your data layer for a few months. However, because they already implemented tracking of each cart addition and removal, you could easily move this data into a localStorage object on each cart interaction to help measure this.
All too often, IT and analytics teams resort to the “just stick it in a cookie” approach. That way, they justify, we’ll have the data saved if it’s ever needed. Given some of the limitations I talked about in my last post, we should all pay close attention to the number, and especially the size, of cookies on our websites. Not doing so can have a very negative impact on user experience, which in turn can have painful implications for your bottom line. While not perfect for every situation, local storage is a valuable tool that can be used to limit the number of cookies used by your website. Hopefully this post has helped you think of a few ways you might be able to use local storage to streamline your own digital analytics implementation.
Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan (Flickr)