Facebook is looking to resurrect its Beacon platform, this time with a little less controversy. Dubbed Facebook Connect, the company describes the new service as the next iteration of the Facebook platform that allows users to connect their Facebook identity, friends and privacy to any site.
This opens the door for third-party Web sites to implement and offer more Facebook features, such as showing a user which of their friends also have accounts on a site.
"In a certain way, this is the return of Facebook Beacon," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "The difference is Beacon was an advertising program. If you took some sort of action on a third-party site while you were signed into Facebook, that action would be broadcast back to your friends. People got upset about it because they weren't fully aware they were exposed in that way."
Beacon vs Connect
Indeed, Facebook drew the ire of thousands of its users just a year ago with Beacon. Fifty thousand Facebook members signed a MoveOn.org petition over a 10-day period asking the site to respect user privacy.
Like Connect, Beacon was positioned as an option to share actions on other sites with friends on Facebook. But Connect does not have an advertising component.
Here's how it works: Members can log onto other Web sites using their Facebook username and password and see what their friends are doing on those sites. Connect also lets users keep their friend network up to date about what they are doing on those sites. Facebook's initial lineup includes the Discovery Channel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Digg, Geni and Hulu, according to a report in The New York Times.
"Connect remedies the issues with Beacon in the sense that you would use your Facebook log-in on the other sites, so you are presumably conscious that this information is going to be exposed to your network on Facebook," Sterling said. "This can be valuable for users."
The Value of Connect
Specifically, Sterling sees value coming from two directions. First, it saves users from potentially having to create and remember dozens or scores of usernames and passwords. Facebook Connect, then, becomes a competing service to OpenID, a decentralized identity system that allows users to log onto many sites with the same identity.
Facebook users might also benefit from recommendations or reviews of products and services their friends have already experienced. Practically speaking, a Facebook member could let friends know about watching a video at Hulu and invite them to join in. Facebook friends could gather in real time and comment as the video rolls.
"Since there is no advertising relation, it should insulate Connect to some degree against some of the criticisms Beacon experienced," Sterling said. "You can selectively use Connect on some sites, but not others. So you can control how much information your friends have about your activities on other sites."
The Social-Ad Dilemma
One thing Connect won't do: Help Facebook on the advertising front. Facebook is not alone in its quest to beef up advertising revenue.
IDC reports social networks are struggling to find an effective way to help advertisers cash in on their traffic. Less than 60 percent of all social networkers clicked on an ad in the past 12 months, according to IDC, and only 11 percent of those clicks converted to a sale.
"Connect still doesn't solve Facebook's problem of how to do advertising in a more effective way," Sterling affirmed, "but it's a way to get a broader reach across the Web."