Facebook starts selling offsite ads targeting non-users too

Facebook’s advertising network is already a colossal business — it helped the social network bring in over $5 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter alone — but it is about to take a step towards become the internet’s advertising exchange after announcing that it will start showing ads to non-users across the web..

Previously, if you were either not a Facebook user or not logged into the social network, then Facebook advertising on third party websites or mobile apps — powered by the Facebook Audience Network — would not be visible to you. That all changes today.

With more than 1.6 billion active users who share a range of personal information through its service, Facebook has built a formidable advertising business that enables companies to drill down into granular detail when targeting the audience they want to reach. That’s changed the game for generating interest in websites, services, app downloads or really anything online. While Facebook’s Audience Network has enabled it to extend that reach outside of Facebook to let advertisers find Facebook users while they are not inside the social network, today’s subtle move could hand advertisers the power to reach even more people.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook will use a mix of cookie tracking, its own buttons and plugins and other data to identify non-users on third-party websites. Added to that data, Facebook will use patterns within its massive userbase to make educated guesses about non-users to help target them with more relevant advertising.

For example, why are they on this particular website, what interests and hobbies might they have, etc. These details are essential to replicating the very precise Facebook ad targeting with those who don’t have a Facebook account. If hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who also visited a site are interested in a particular type of clothing or app, or respond well to a specific kind of marketing, Facebook could use that insight to boost the relevance of ads pointed at non-users who visited that site — both immediately and later since the cookies follow them.

“Because we have a core audience of over a billion people [on Facebook] who we do understand, we have a greater opportunity than other companies using the same type of mechanism,” Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook’s ads and business platform, told the Journal.

Bosworth believes that, beyond offering more targeted outreach for advertisers, Facebook’s knowledge of internet users and advertising practices can benefit users by cutting down on poor quality advertising.

“Advertising may be here to stay, but bad advertising… doesn’t have to. That’s why we’re working to provide a better online advertising experience for everyone: people, publishers, and advertisers,” he wrote in a blog post.

“While more than a hundred companies already serve interest-based advertising on websites and apps today, we offer a better experience because we care about the integrity of Facebook ads,” Bosworth added. That includes refusing to run ads that auto-play sound or use frustrating pop-ups.

This move could be hugely pivotal for Facebook. Not only does it is further evidence that the company is keen to establish itself as the world’s premier video platform — which has some seriously money when it comes to advertising, not to mention tough competition from the likes of YouTube — by appealing beyond its social network, it also raises some tantalizing possibilities for the future.

Back when Facebook began testing off-network advertising in 2012, TechCrunch’s resident Facebook reporter Josh Constine wrote about the potential for an ad-free experience on the social network. It would essentially use its main properties to collect data and provide a consistently enjoyable experience, instead of using the Facebook and Instagram apps as sources of page views.

While it is up for debate whether Facebook would go so far as to remove its core ads altogether, a thriving internet business could allow it to impose a stricter filter on the kinds of ads it shows or avoid having to show more per organic News Feed post than it does already.

That could help place more focus on video advertising, a play that Facebook has pursued for some time, while fewer ad spots would make those actually on the social network considerably more valuable. Scarcity would mean these spots are more valuable to advertisers and, potentially, more relevant and less intrusive.

Facebook’s big competitor in the global ads market is Google. The search giant might arguably know more about people’s browsing habits. But since Google failed at social, it never got users voluntarily filling out profiles full of valuable, targetable personal information.

One thing is for sure from today’s news though: if you’ve avoided getting a Facebook account so far or have quit the social network, there is no hiding — Facebook will find you on the internet.