In Depth: New Facebook CTO Bret Taylor Discusses Open Graph, Mobile and Regional Growth, and Advertising

Part 2 of 2 – See Part 1 here

Five weeks ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appointed Bret Taylor, who joined the company when Facebook acquired FriendFeed in August 2009, as its new CTO. We sat down with Taylor to talk about Facebook’s vision for the future of the Facebook Platform, and how it’s affecting everything the company is doing.

In the first part of this interview, yesterday, Taylor shares his thoughts on the state of the Platform, new ways developers should expect Platform governance to evolve in the months ahead, the new group at Facebook that is responsible for the health of the games ecosystem, new types of communication channels that Facebook may launch, and the Credits rollout transition. Today, Taylor discusses the state of the Open Graph Protocol, and Facebook’s long term Platform vision as it relates to mobile and regional growth.

Taylor is moving from his role has the head of Platform to CTO at a time when Facebook is nearing 500 million monthly active users as a whole, over 1 million websites have integrated Facebook functionality in some form, and social gaming companies on the Facebook Platform are earning hundreds of millions of dollars in overall revenues this year.

Justin Smith: One of your main priorities recently has been the Open Graph products. Can you describe who’s having the most success with this approach to marking up their content?

Bret Taylor: The initial launch of Open Graph was focused on things that would otherwise be Facebook Pages – actors, celebrities, etc. The basic idea was that if you were Green Day the band, it’s really inefficient for you to have GreenDay.com, and a Green Day account on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. Your internet identity is GreenDay.com. Through the Open Graph Protocol, that is the thing that users connect to and can add to their profile, and that’s the object sending users updates.

I’m not prepared with enough metrics to answer this question, but anecdotally in my personal network the things that have been working the best are sites with really high quality content that weren’t previously represented well on Facebook. So sites like IMDB, Yelp, and things that really are a part of your identity. To go to a fan page on Facebook and click Like, you have to be a pretty avid fan of a band, but if you’re on IMDB because you’re checking out a movie you watched, adding a “bumper sticker” to your profile is a lot easier to do.

For my friends, this is increasing the volume of changes they make to their profile, and in turn making their profile more accurately reflect their actual interests – as opposed to the movies they typed in when they created their Facebook account in 2005 that have since been frozen in time. I think that’s a really positive change for Facebook, and a really positive change for partners like IMDB, who are getting more traffic from Facebook than they were before.

In the long term, the product is a little immature right now. We just launched it at f8, we’re still learning how people use it. We think about Facebook as a social graph, and the things that people connect to don’t really need to live on Facebook.com.

This is just a first step in that direction. It’s really not important that Facebook hosts the photo, it’s really more important that your friends are tagged in it. That’s what makes Facebook great. Likewise with Events, it’s not important where the event is hosted, it matters that you can invite your Facebook friends and have those serendipitous experiences.

So over the long term we’d really like to open up Facebook entirely, so that we’re like the social glue for objects on the rest of the web. We have a long way to go, but our long term vision is for Facebook to be truly open and the social plumbing, as opposed to simply a destination site.

With the launch of the newer simpler products, does it matter to you which type of Facebook integration people use for the long term development of the ecosystem?

There are some categories of developers in my view as it relates to this. The social plugins have really resonated with content and media sites. If you’re a newspaper or a blog, your software is the content management system. There’s a huge amount of engineering to build a social networking system. There are sites like Huffington Post that have developed that functionality, but the vast majority haven’t invested the significant amount of resources given the relatively unknown value coming out the other end. Social plugins will probably be the right technology for them given the cost/benefit of doing a deeper integration.

For startups that are building social sites from the ground up, login is the right solution. But social plugins are a great complement for those systems too. Hopefully those will increase the conversion rate of people visiting your site quite a bit, because users can see that three of their friends are already there. The idea with social plugins is if you show an activity stream or a login button with pictures of your friends, the likelihood that users will join goes up. The spirit of the social plugins is really instant personalization.

Are you happy with the way Platform has been growing on mobile? Fundamentally, will the core product features and communication channels likely stay the same across the devices?

I think it’s been pretty great – I don’t know the exact stats, but a huge percentage of the top apps on iPhone and Andriod integrate Facebook Connect.

There are also still a lot of user experience things we need to improve. For example, it’s hard to enter your password. I have some punctuation in my password being the computer geek that I am, and I have to click four keys just to get the punctuation characters to show up. The interesting thing to me around mobile is that it is a single user device, and I feel like we could improve the user experience of the platform given those constraints. But overall we’ve been pretty happy with it.

We do think [core Platform communication channels will stay the same across devices]. We think of our platform as a truly horizontal platform, rather than a vertical platform. With a phone platform that might run the app store too, it’s the whole stack, whereas Facebook can be a component of your application no matter what platform it runs on – website, iPhone app, desktop app. One of the values that we can provide is a uniform set of communication channels. We do have a lot of work to do on user experience, as a lot of the platforms and form factors are new, but we would like a consistent set of channels across those devices.

We’re seeing a lot of regional growth on the Platform. For example, there are some developers that are based in Asia, Europe, or South America and developing apps for users in their region. Do you think that, similarly, there will be a uniform set of features across regional and cultural segments of the userbase?

I think at a high level yes, but probably with some exceptions. This is again a little bit outside my area of expertise, but I’ll just give one example.

Certainly payments differ quite a bit across countries. We’re going to have to do a lot of specialized work to make payments work in countries where credit cards are not a common phenomenon. And likewise some countries are dominated by mobile usage, and the Facebook experience is therefore dominated by our mobile products, which emphasize certain channels differently.

Our platform will probably have to evolve to reflect some of those differences as well. Mobile usage is becoming a dominant use case in some regions, but it’s still a little hard for me to predict right now. I think we’re willing to do some different things, but there is a lot of value in having the same platform and the same channels everywhere. It’s important that the developer community have a shared understanding of our platform and how it works.

Does it concern you that in some regions there are some people who use Facebook primarily for gaming, and who have built their social graph and use the product in a really different way than people who, for example, grew up using Facebook the US?

It certainly doesn’t bother us that people use Facebook for gaming. A lot of people in the US joined because of photos. It’s just one of the reasons why people love Facebook.

I think some of the issues around the social graph are things we’ve put a lot of focus on. It’s important to us that Facebook be your real identity, and that your Facebook friends be your real world friends. That is an important quality of Facebook, and it’s something that our developers expect of our platform and that makes Facebook different than other platforms.

At the same time, growth is growth, and if people are using our product and loving it, that’s the most important thing. But making sure the integrity of our graph is there is something we focus on because it is one of the primary values we provide to our developers.

There has been much discussion on security issues related to the data model of the Platform over the years, but it has always been unknown whether there have actually been significant cases in which data obtained through the Facebook APIs in an authorized way was misused my malicious developers. Can you clarify that at all?

I’m not going to comment on specific cases, but we have a very large and popular developer ecosystem and there are some malicious developers. Our site integrity team hunts them down. But it’s not very widespread because we have good teams working on it. We spend a lot of time and effort on technology on this. The type of information that class of developers is interested in is largely email address, because that’s what there’s a market for on the darker side of the internet.

You have to take a layered approach to security – from the automated systems detecting unusual flows of data on Facebook as a whole, down to the people on our operations team manually trying these apps. All of our systems are designed to catch problems as quickly as possible.

You said earlier that solving the distribution problem is more complex given the intrinsic bifurcation between people who want to see game updates and people who don’t. One of our observations over the last year is that developers are increasingly using advertising as a channel for acquiring new users to complement their other efforts. Do you think that’s healthy?

I think it’s fine. To some degree it was a little unexpected. I wasn’t here when all of this was created, but my understanding of all this was that no one really anticipated the degree to which our platform developers would depend on advertising.

At a high level our advertising system is a generic auction model system. To the degree that our game developers can monetize the users they get through advertising more effectively than other advertisers in the system, then that’s a great system for them. But it’s not optimized for them – it’s optimized to be a very general purpose advertising system.

I have a feeling that as more advertisers get into the system, some of those dynamics will change, just because the costs of acquiring new users will change as the diversity of advertisers changes. At the same time, it seems great that if you’re a game player on Facebook, what a great user to target to suggest that they play another game. It makes intuitive sense that it is a good system for our developers.

Do you expect that future changes to communication channels, like an updated form of notifications, would change the dynamics here significantly?

I think it almost inevitably will. But at the same time I think a lot of our developers use all of these channels. Some will be more effective than others depending on different dynamics within those channels, so I have a feeling that changes we make will hopefully improve the lives of our developers and improve the experience of our users. But at the same time, if our advertising system still happens to work well for them, I don’t think it’s a zero sum game at all. Developers want users, and as long as it’s cost effective, they’ll take them any way they can get them.

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