Facebook Aims to Extend Its Reach Across the Web

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Facebook, the Internet’s largest social network, wants to let you take your friends with you as you travel the Web. But having been burned by privacy concerns in the last year, it plans to keep close tabs on those outings.

Facebook Connect, as the company’s new feature is called, allows its members to log onto other Web sites using their Facebook identification and see their friends’ activities on those sites. Like Beacon, the controversial advertising program that Facebook introduced and then withdrew last year after it raised a hullabaloo over privacy, Connect also gives members the opportunity to broadcast their actions on those sites to their friends on Facebook.

In the next few weeks, a number of prominent Web sites will weave this service into their pages, including those of the Discovery Channel and The San Francisco Chronicle, the social news site Digg, the genealogy network Geni and the online video hub Hulu.

Facebook Connect is representative of some surprising new thinking in Silicon Valley. Instead of trying to hoard information about their users, the Internet giants have all announced plans to share at least some of that data so people do not have to enter the same identifying information again and again on different sites.

Supporters of this idea say such programs will help with the emergence of a new “social Web,” because chatter among friends will infiltrate even sites that have been entirely unsociable thus far.

For example, a person might alert his Facebook friends to the fact that he is watching a video on CBS.com and invite them to join him there to watch together and discuss the video as it plays.

“Everyone is looking for ways to make their Web sites more social,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. “They can build their own social capabilities, but what will be more useful for them is building on top of a social system that people are already wedded to.”

MySpace, Yahoo and Google have all announced similar programs this year, using common standards that will allow other Web sites to reduce the work needed to embrace each identity system. Facebook, which is using its own data-sharing technology, is slightly ahead of its rivals.

The effort is particularly important for Facebook, which once represented the seemingly boundless promise of the Web 2.0 boom. It desperately wants to make certain the other Web companies do not supplant it and become the most popular hub for online socializing.

Facebook, with 120 million members worldwide, has also been under extra pressure to get its revenue to match its media hype and membership growth. Responding to reports that Facebook was looking for more capital after raising $235 million last year, Ms. Sandberg said she would not rule that out. “There is a lot of interest in investing in us and we are always open to the right financing at the right price,” she said.

The most immediate challenge confronting Facebook is to create an enduring stream of advertising revenue.

A survey last week from the research firm IDC suggested that social networks were a miserable place for advertisers: just 57 percent of all users of social networks clicked on an ad in the last year, and only 11 percent of those clicks led to a purchase, IDC said. And it turns out that marketers are not so interested in advertising on pages filled with personal trivia and relationship updates.

“What in heaven’s name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with their girlfriend?” Ted McConnell, a general manager at Procter & Gamble, asked last month at an industry conference.This is where Facebook Connect could help. No money changes hands between Facebook and the sites using Connect, and executives are wary of discussing how it could bring in revenue. But there are some obvious possibilities.

Facebook has detailed information about its users: their real identities, what they like and dislike and whom they associate with. With a member’s permission, it could use that data to help other Web sites deliver more personalized ads. Similarly, those sites could tell Facebook what its users are doing elsewhere, helping to make its own ads more targeted.

“It’s becoming very clear that advertisers don’t know how to advertise on Facebook,” said Charlene Li, an independent consultant and social media analyst. “But if you take a group of Facebook friends and put them on a travel site where they are spending more time and generating more ad dollars in a focused area like travel, that is an opportunity ripe for getting revenues back and sharing it.”

Facebook executives argue that Connect will naturally increase traffic on the site and increase ad revenue as a result. Ms. Sandberg said the company had no plans to explore any other advertising potential with Connect.

That reluctance is partly born of experience. Last year, Facebook was lambasted for its Beacon advertising program, which some thought failed to properly warn users that their actions on other sites were being shared on Facebook. Some users’ purchases on e-commerce sites, for example, were broadcast to their friends, in some cases spoiling gift plans.

As a result, Facebook executives have been exceedingly circumspect with Connect, introducing it slowly and pitching it as a privacy tool. They argue that it allows users to set their privacy settings once on Facebook and then apply them on other sites.

Facebook has also taken other precautions. According to staff members at the political advocacy group MoveOn.org, which led the charge against Beacon, Facebook executives gave them an early briefing this summer about Connect.

For now, Facebook is also carefully authorizing each partner in the Connect program and reviewing how it will use data on Facebook members and discuss the feature publicly. It plans to allow Web sites to register themselves for Connect, without having to seek approval, in the next few weeks.

“They so desperately want to avoid another Beacon,” said an executive with a company that plans to use Connect but has been waiting for a green light from Facebook for months. This person did not want to be quoted by name criticizing Facebook.

When asked about the potential promises and pitfalls of Connect, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said: “We want to make the experience as lightweight and easy to use as possible. But we also have to make sure that people understand what’s going on and have control over it.”

Executives at the social network MySpace, which has similar goals, are more outspoken in discussing their identification system.

“There are so many important issues to get right,” said Jason Oberfest, a vice president at MySpace. “Consumers need to understand where their data is going and how it’s being used.”

“Then, if we can get the privacy issues right, if it’s totally clear to the user what is happening, there is potential for advertising,” Mr. Oberfest added. “But certainly not without a lot of testing and consideration.”

Leave a Reply