From cookies to caches: Understanding your browser history (and how to delete it)

Sarah Harris
SH
Sarah Harris
May 14, 2019

Web browsers keep track of your online activities to help serve you a better browsing experience. Whether you saw an ad for your favorite store on Facebook, or were able to quickly navigate to your most-visited blog, your browser history probably played a part in it.

From cookies to caches, your browser stores your data in several different ways. By staying aware of how your internet history is logged, you can help keep your data safe and your network fast.

Basic browser history terms defined

What is a browser?

Your browser, or web browser, is the application you use to access the internet. Popular browsers include Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. Whether you’re checking the weather or reading the news, your browser is the vessel that lets you surf the web.

What is browser history?

Your browser history is a record of the sites you’ve visited in the past. The record stores the names of the sites you visited and when you visited them. This includes download history, search history, cookies, cache and more.

What is a cache?

Cache (also known as browser cache, web cache or HTTP cache) is a system for storing web data to quickly serve it again in the future. The process of saving this data is referred to as “caching”.

For example, if you have a favorite recipe blog, your browser cache will save a copy of that site for whenever you want to access it again. This means that your browser can load the page quickly on your next visit rather than downloading it over and over again from the server. It’ll also save bandwidth usage to keep your network running smoothly.

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small file sent to your browser from sites you visit. When you visit the site again in the future, your browser will send the cookie back to the site so that you can be served a more personalized experience.

You can think of a cookie as a note-taker which logs your activity on a specific site. For instance, a shopping site might use a cookie to keep track of the items you look at. If you leave the page before completing your order, then return again later, the cookie can send its notes to the site and show you what you had in your cart.

There are two main kinds of cookies ― session cookies and persistent cookies.

  • Session cookies only store information temporarily, and disappear when you close your browser.
  • Persistent cookies store information for longer periods of time, for purposes like the shopping example above.

What is autofill?

Autofill is a function that saves information entered into input fields. For example, if you regularly order products from online stores, your browser’s autofill function will save the customer information that you enter. Then, when you fill out an order form on your next purchase, your browser will already know what to enter into the address and contact fields. Instead of typing in all your information over and over again, you can simply let your computer do the work for you.

When to clear your browser history

Like emptying a vacuum cleaner, clearing out your browser history allows your browser to function more efficiently. There isn’t a recommended regularity for clearing out your history, but some devices may need it more often than others. Since a computer has lots of memory space, your browser data won’t normally bog down the system. However, your phone or tablet may require more frequent clearouts since their data capacities are smaller.

Typically, clearing your browser history will also clear out your cookies and caches. Luckily, these clearouts will generally not affect your autofill settings, so you don’t have to worry about re-entering that information later on.

How to clear your browser history

Desktop

Firefox
Click the Library button (look like a stack of books) > History > Clear Recent History. You can then select how much of your browsing history to delete. When you’re done, click Clear now.

Chrome
At the top-right of your browser, click More (three stacked dots) > History > History. This will open a new tab. On the left, click Clear browsing data. You can then select how much of your browsing history to delete. When you’re done, click Clear data.

Safari
In the Safari app, select History > Clear History, then click the pop-up menu. You can then select how much of your browsing history to delete.

Other
Look for your browser’s dropdown menu in the navigation bar. You should see a button like “Settings” or “History,” which will navigate you to your browser history clearout options. Select the data you want to remove, then choose the “Clear history” option.

Mobile/Tablet

iOS
Navigate to Settings > Safari, and tap Clear History and Website Data. This will clear your history, cache and cookies, but will not remove your autofill information. You can also opt to block cookies from this menu, but keep in mind that blocking cookies may cause some sites to function incorrectly. To clear your cookies without clearing your browsing history, you can navigate to Settings > Safari > Advanced > Website Data, and tap Remove All Website Data.

Android
Open your Chrome app. If your navigation bar is at the top of your screen, tap More (the three stacked dots) > History. If your address bar is at the bottom, swipe up on the address bar and tap History. From there, tap Clear browsing data. You can then select how much history you want to delete, or select All time to clear everything. Check Browsing history and untick anything you don’t want to delete, then tap Clear data.

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