Will ads powered by Facebook user data be more effective than Google’s cookie-based ones?

Marketing agencies, and the brands who use them, now have another distribution option to choose from: Atlas has relaunched its ad server, which serves up display ads on websites and mobile apps. Now, it’s powered by Facebook’s user gender, location, and age information. The buzzword-laden post announcing the news calls it “people-based marketing.”

What that really means is that users will see ads targeted at them based on their official Facebook profile information, instead of from user-profile deductions drawn from a history of all the websites they’ve visited. For example: A 55-year-old man in Kentucky who just happens to really like Jezebel and the SFist will see ads meant for 55-year-old Midwestern men when he peruses the web, instead of ads meant for 16-year-old girls from the Bay Area. Or at least, he’ll see the Midwestern ads when said ad has been served by Facebook’s Atlas ad server, instead of, say, Google’s DoubleClick.

As others have noted, the Atlas relaunch marks Facebook’s first foray into Google’s territory. It’s a direct competitor not to Google’s search-based AdWords product, but to its website-app display ads on DoubleClick. Here’s how The Information put it when it first broke the news of Facebook’s plan for Atlas.

The upcoming announcement will set the stage for a display advertising showdown. While Google’s ownership of search advertising though AdWords is seen as an unshakable monopoly, display advertising is fragmented and thus more vulnerable. DoubleClick already faces competition from similar ad products owned by other major web publishers such as Yahoo and AOL.

Although Atlas lacks anything near the reach of DoubleClick — which by some estimates touches more than 80 percent of all display ad transactions — Facebook hopes to cut into that lead with better tracking that gives precise insight into an ad’s performance across many websites and apps.

But are cookies truly so flawed they can’t accurately determine a person’s gender, age, and location?

Based on the experiences of Gigaom’s own Stacey Higginbotham, the answer appears to be yes. Because of her search interest in telecom and real-estate, Google thinks she’s a 35-44 year old man, and targets its ads as such. But with Atlas’ relaunch, the ads would correctly identify that she is a female (just one who happens to be interested in telecom and real-estate). A Facebook spokesperson told me, “We are able to serve and measure ads based on real people because we have the Facebook Identity whereas Google relies on the cookie.”

Jonathan Nelson, the CEO of Omnicom Digital, part of the nation’s biggest advertising agency, agrees that cookies leave a lot to be desired with advertising tracking. Nelson said he’s excited by the new service, lauding it for fixing the ad targeting pain point that agencies face. Omnicom is on board as the first official partner. But Nelson cautioned that Atlas isn’t a replacement, or even really a competitor, for Google’s advertising offerings.

“I don’t know how much Atlas will let you target onto Google, and likewise I’m not sure how much DoubleClick will get directly on Facebook,” Nelson said. “The reality is one of them owns social and the other owns search and video.” In other words, on Google’s search pages you’ll continue to only see ads served by Google Adwords. On Facebook, you’ll likely only see ads served by Atlas. And for all the in-between offerings — websites and mobile apps — you’ll see a mix of both. Ad agencies focus on developing the most efficient campaigns with the best ROI, which usually means using a broad swath of tools from DoubleClick and Atlas, to television and radio.

It’s an interesting time for Atlas and Facebook to make the announcement, following so shortly on the heels of social media network Ello’s explosion Ello captured the nation’s attention with its no-ad policy, after a big swath of the LGBTQ community joined the new site in the wake of Facebook’s “real-names” controversy. So Facebook is rolling out even-more-targeted ads, as consumers are clamoring for an ad-free social network option. When I brought up Ello to a Facebook spokesperson, he said, “We’re heads down focused on Atlas, so I don’t have anything to say about that at this time.”


This story has been updated to remove a paragraph about ad targeting in Facebook itself.