Facebook is preparing to launch a bunch of new and improved capabilities for Atlas, its off-Facebook ad server, in Q1 2014, and the company’s head of Atlas, Erik Johnson, agreed to chat with Business Insider about the company’s progress when it comes to non-Facebook ads.
Perhaps the biggest issue he addressed was whether Atlas might eventually link your Facebook account to ad-tracking cookies elsewhere on the web, so that Facebook can better identify users wherever they may be, even when they’re not on Facebook.
Atlas is the giant ad-serving and measurement business Facebook bought from Microsoft back in February. It’s one of the least well understood parts of Facebook’s business. Basically, Atlas is like the plumbing for much of the advertising you see outside Facebook on the Web. When websites and mobile devices want to show their users an ad, it is often Atlas that serves the ad and generates data on its performance. One ex-Facebook exec says it has 20% market share.
As far as Atlas is concerned, Facebook is most concerned with “multi-touch attribution,” Johnson says. Until recently, the last ad a person saw before buying something got credit for the sale. But everyone knows that it may take multiple exposures to different forms of advertising before a consumer will make the final decision to buy. Atlas will give Facebook the ability to see all the different points at which a consumer may have encountered an ad before buying.
Johnson stressed that Facebook is not currently tracking users outside Facebook via their Facebook logins.
But Atlas could eventually be used to follow users across different devices. A consumer may look at something on a phone, a tablet, and then a computer. But cookies can’t demonstrate that it’s the same person. It may even appear to be three different people.
“We have identifiers that show the person who saw that ad across three different devices was the same person,” Johnson says. The identifier he’s referring to is your Facebook login — people almost never bother to logout once they’ve looked at their Facebook app.
“The most important thing is Facebook plus Atlas, and how we’re able to focus on people and not cookies,” Johnson says.
If an advertiser wants to reach females age 18-34, cookies don’t actually identify women specifically in that age bracket. Rather, they identify users whose browsing histories are similar to what you’d expect from someone in that demographic: Maybe they visited sites for a wedding planner, followed by Zappos, followed by a site for the “Hunger Games” movie franchise. It’s a big assumption that those users are all female and all under 34, however.
At some point in the future, Facebook ID completes the picture, Johnson says: “The cookie would be the way you connect the ad that runs on a specific site to the Facebook identifier.” (Users will remain anonymous and their data used in aggregate — Facebook won’t literally be targeting you and you alone.)
That means, as far as Facebook is concerned, that the cookie is not going away any time soon. Ever since it emerged that Google was developing a replacement tracking device for the cookie, the so-called “AdID,” there has been speculation that the real-identity logins of Facebook, Google and Twitter might emerge as an alternative to cookies. (A number of companies and a large number of users now all discriminate against cookies, too.)
“It’s not quite that black and white, the identifier versus the cookie,” Johnson says. “Cookies will probably be around for a while, especially in the developing world. It’s a global business. We believe that cookies will be around some time. We see a world where you overlay, or see an identity layer sitting alongside the cookie.”
More immediately, Facebook’s engineers and developers have been rewriting Atlas’s code. The team has rolled out several improvements and is preparing a Q1 launch of an alpha test of a new version of the Atlas platform. “We’ll run out an alpha that sits alongside, somewhat independent from the existing platform, and take learnings from that to beta, and subsequently release and figure out the best way to do a custom migration” of all clients, Johnson says. “It’s a pretty big task. We want to use as much Facebook technology as possible to make it a very fast service to bring the snappiness and the features you see in Facebook to Atlas, so it’s a fairly significant rewrite.”
Disclosure: The author owns Facebook stock.