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Exclusive Q&A with Mike Vernal of Facebook

Web 2.0 Journal Q&A Special: 1,000+ Websites Now Using Facebook Connect

More than a thousand sites are using Facebook Connect, says Mike Vernal, a member of the Facebook Platform engineering team, in this Exclusive Q&A with SYS-CON's Web 2.0 Journal. Some prominent examples Vernal mentions include Citysearch for local reviews, Joost and Vimeo for video sharing, and a number of blogs, including TechCrunch and Gawker.

Web 2.0 Journal: You’ve been closely involved with developing and launching Facebook Connect. How would you summarize the chief strategic benefit of this service for Facebook’s 150M or so users?

Mike Vernal: I think the answer is twofold. First, Facebook Connect allows users to take their Facebook profile and friends with them to any site on the Web. This is pretty powerful, in that it saves users the hassle of creating another username and password, filling out their profile information, and running a contact importer on every site. Instead, the user can simply register and log in using their Facebook identity and immediately bring their profile and friends with them to that site.

Second, Facebook Connect allows users to share what they’re doing across the Web with their friends back on Facebook. So if I blog about something interesting, comment on someone else’s blog, or share photos or videos somewhere on the Web, I can now share that with my friends through Facebook. We’ve found that sharing this information back to friends helps to create a virtuous cycle of sharing, where friends start to comment on your activities and also start to share their own, which we think is quite powerful and valuable to users.

Web 2.0 Journal: Does this mark the much-discussed transition of Facebook to “platform” status, do you think?

Vernal: Facebook Connect is an evolution of the existing Facebook Platform. Since the very beginning, our goal with Platform has been to allow applications anywhere to become more social by leveraging the power of Facebook. Since 2006 we’ve had an API that allows Web, desktop, and mobile applications to integrate Facebook information. The initial version of Facebook Platform added the ability to integrate directly into Facebook. Facebook Connect represents an evolution of the experience for Web applications. We’re looking to evolve the mobile and desktop experiences, too, including a version of Facebook Connect specifically designed for mobile phones called Facebook Connect for Mobile.

Web 2.0 Journal: How many sites are currently live with Facebook Connect?

Vernal: Currently more than a thousand sites are using Facebook Connect. Some prominent examples include Citysearch for local reviews, Joost and Vimeo for video sharing, and a number of blogs, including TechCrunch and Gawker.

Web 2.0 Journal: What is the approval process like for a site that wants to leverage the platform?

Vernal: Anyone can integrate their site with Facebook Connect or build an application that uses Facebook Platform -- there is no approval process to get started. There are a handful of features like friend linking and automatically publishing Feed stories that require a lightweight approval process before being enabled.

Developers can also optionally participate in the Application Verification program, which involves an exhaustive review of an application or site in exchange for badging on Facebook.

Web 2.0 Journal: Tell us about FriendLink, the service that I believe allows a site using Facebook Connect to pass e-mail addresses to Facebook and get friend recommendations back. I can see that this must allow sites to make connections between users that they may not know about yet (but that Facebook already knows about). Is it proving popular?

Vernal: The friend linking feature was designed to allow sites with a large number of users to quickly fill in the social connections between those users. It works by allowing sites to pass us a cryptographic hash of their users’ email addresses and then using that hash to match up their users with our users. This allows us to then ask the user if they’d like to connect their account on that site with Facebook. This feature has strong network effects – it is more valuable to sites with larger user bases, so we’re seeing it gain momentum as larger sites start to launch.

Web 2.0 Journal: What other tips and recommendations can you provide developers on how they can increase social distribution and integrate their Web sites and applications to Facebook Connect?

Vernal: First, I think making the registration process as simple as possible is critical. As most site owners know, the number of people who complete the registration process is inversely proportional to its complexity. As you add steps (fields to fill out, emails to confirm, etc.), you lose users. By leveraging the user’s profile on Facebook, you can make the registration process much simpler and get more users into your site.

Second, once the user has connected to your site, you can save them the hassle of logging in each time they come back. If the user is already logged into Facebook and has connected to your site, then it’s easy to securely detect that and automatically log the user into your site.

Third, I think there’s a huge amount of potential around using Facebook Connect to increase user engagement on your site. By using the social graph as a content filter, you can help present the user with more relevant information. A classic example of this is a review site like Citysearch – people tend to trust and value reviews from their friends more than they trust reviews from the general population. By highlighting reviews from friends and other trusted contacts, the site becomes more valuable and engaging to the user.

Lastly, there are social communication features like Feed that allow users to share what their doing back with their friends on Facebook and, in the process, drive traffic and engagement on your site.

Web 2.0 Journal: How about those who are worried that Facebook Connect gives Facebook access to a great deal of information about how users interact with other social sites. What do you say to them?

Vernal: Our goal with Facebook Connect has been to help users take their information with them to sites across the Web and to help those sites build better, more engaging user experiences with that information. If more people are logging in and engaging with content on another Web site because of Facebook Connect, we see that as helping the site overcome core challenges of attracting and retaining users. We also believe the increased engagement will open doors to new revenue opportunities.

We also give sites and users the power to share information back through Facebook. First, sites can choose which actions they think users will want to share back through Facebook. Users are then in control of the actual stories that are published back to Facebook through the Feed publishing dialogs. We believe we’re offering a valuable service to users and Web sites while giving the site and the user control over what information is shared back through Facebook.

Web 2.0 Journal: What’s the mobile piece of the Facebook Connect story?

Vernal: Facebook Connect for Mobile is a mobile-specific version of Facebook Connect that will launch in early 2009. It will first be available to developers working on the iPhone platform. Like Facebook Connect for the Web, it will be focused on letting users bring their Facebook profile and friends with them to applications on their mobile phones. There are already some exciting applications in the queue, so stay tuned.

Web 2.0 Journal: FB was launched February 4th, 2004, so it’s soon reaching its 5th birthday. Are there any special birthday plans that you’re aware of – as a welcome counterpoint to the gloom and doom of ’09, perhaps?

Vernal: Being an engineer, they thankfully don’t trust me to plan the parties. We’re all getting pretty excited by the continued growth we’re seeing across the world, including over 150 million people actively using the site, and we’re excited to see what the next year will bring.

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More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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