Facebook Connect is Beacon Done Right

Josh Catone

Remember Facebook Beacon? Last November, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “completely new way of advertising online” at the exclusive, super-hyped, invite-only launch event in New York City. But just a month later, he was issuing a mea culpa. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it,” he wrote on the company’s blog. The problem? Badly botched privacy controls that made users feel like they were being tricked into exposing their purchasing habits to their friends and networks and becoming marketers without agreeing to it.

The idea behind Beacon was sound: if you can get people to promote the products they already buy to their friends, those endorsements will be more effective than regular advertising because they’re coming from a trusted source. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg and Facebook, the implementation left a lot to be desired and it was named as one of the biggest tech flubs of 2007 by ReadWriteWeb.

Today, Facebook announced the release of Facebook Connect, a way to share identity and social graph information securely with third party sites and bring third-party data back into Facebook. In a lot of ways, Facebook Connect is a better Beacon.

What Was Wrong About Beacon

Facebook’s Beacon, as originally conceived, was something like one-way data portability. It sucked data in from third party sites, but didn’t let anything flow back out. It also only let data flow in from partner sites that were participating in the Beacon program. By not being open to other sites, Facebook limited the usefulness of Beacon for users so it felt more like spam than a worthwhile feature.

The biggest issue with Beacon, however, was the poor privacy controls. Beacon took a shoot first, ask questions later approach. Initially, rather than let users opt-in to Beacon, anyone who was logged into Facebook while browsing a Beacon-enabled site would find their information shared back to Facebook automatically. Users were asked to give permission for information to be shared the next time they logged into Facebook, but some people complained that the warnings were easy to miss. Asking users to complete extra steps to keep private information from being shared is not a good practice anyway.

What’s Right About Connect

Facebook Connect, which was revealed today at the F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco, addresses both of the main problems with Beacon.

Connect basiscally extends the Facebook platform outside of the social network’s walls, allowing third-party sites access to Facebook user and social graph data. What makes Connect reminiscent of Beacon, is that user activity on those sites can also be fed back into Facebook via the news feed.

Facebook Connect Features via official press release:

  • Trusted Authentication – easily authenticate into partner sites using their Facebook account
  • Real Identity – leverage their real identity across the Web in a trusted environment
  • Friend Linking – take their friends with them wherever they go, enabling trusted social context anywhere on the Web
  • Dynamic Privacy – assurance that the same privacy settings users have set up on Facebook will follow them wherever they decide to login throughout the Web
  • Social Distribution – share actions on partner sites with their friends back on Facebook through feeds

By introducing user controlled privacy settings from the start and allowing any site to tap into Facebook’s user base via Connect, Facebook has created the version of Beacon that they should have launched last fall. The result for third parties is still the same, but users are more apt to get on board because they’ll be in control of how and if their information is shared back to Facebook and on outside sites. Further, developers have the option to extend the Facebook social experience for users to sites outside of Facebook.

For Facebook, Connect differs widely from Beacon since it is not an advertising program — Facebook doesn’t make any money when a user’s activity on a third party site is shown in the news feed. However, Facebook realizes that the more people and web sites that come to rely on their API, the more they will become deeply ingrained in our web habits and experience, and that will put them in a better position to make money.

Facebook Connect will be available to all users this fall.