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How Will Facebook Atlas Compare to Google AdWords?

James Parsons • Updated on August 9, 2022
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Google AdWords is one of the most established, most valuable PPC platforms available.  Coupling Google’s power with years of refinement, it’s easy to see why it’s dominant in the world of marketing.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been an incredibly potent ad platform with a very limited reach – limited, in fact, to the site itself.  Early in 2013, however, Facebook acquired Atlas from Microsoft and began slowly working on a way to win the hearts and minds of marketers globally.

Facebook has now announced the return of Atlas as a people-focused PPC platform, powered, by the massive amounts of information and the potent data filters present in the modern Audience networks.  On paper, it looks as though AdWords has huge competition.  How will it really turn out?

How AdWords Works

AdWords, and most other advertising platforms to date, use cookies.  Cookies are small text files placed on a computer when that computer visits a site.  You visit and that site puts a cookie with session information and whatever else onto your computer.  Then, the next time you visit, that cookie is read and the site knows a little more about you.  For advertising, this allows a lot of flexibility in terms of where an ad should be placed and who should see it.

Google has been making a slow campaign out of working to eliminate cookies, for a few reasons.  For one thing, they’re easy to erase.  Some web browsers can be set to clear them each time the application is closed.  Worse, for the modern age, cookies are sparse on mobile devices.  The inbuilt security of mobile prevents sites from placing cookies on the devices.

Facebook’s Solution


Atlas presents Facebook’s solution to the cookie problem, based around Facebook itself.  Facebook itself has heavy integration on mobile devices, with a massive amount of the site’s traffic coming from mobile users.  Atlas is a bit of a gamble, working to integrate with mobile seamlessly alongside traditional desktop advertising.

In order to track a user, Atlas needs to use something.  What does it use?  For Facebook, it seems that advertisers will be able to define their campaigns centered around numerous audience factors, including primarily whether or not the user has liked a page.  Another factor, specifically from mobile, is whether a user is using certain third party apps.  Facebook can sense your app usage, though usage is all it gets.

Essentially, Facebook’s Atlas is just adding more mobile data to the mix of already available personal demographic information available on users using the platform.

Atlas as a Google Killer

What makes this so valuable to marketers?  What makes this a rival or potential slayer of Google’s AdWords program?  The answer is how it bridges gaps.

Atlas bridges the gap between desktop and mobile advertising.  There will be more integration between platforms than ever before.  Facebook will be able to sense and add more data to the Audience filters, and marketers will be able to use that data to serve ads to specific people, rather than specific platforms and demographics.

Altas’ ideal is to target advertising more towards people than towards demographics, cookies and other impersonal identifiers.  Even Google’s attempt at a universal ID is hampered, in part because it needs to start from scratch with data collection.  Atlas has the full power of the existing Facebook audience and userbase behind it.  Even if Facebook declines and dies over the next few years, keeping a Facebook account integration going for advertising will be easy.

Atlas bridges the gap between digital purchasing and in-store purchasing.  Until now, there’s been little or no way to track whether a user buying an item in-store did so because of an advertisement they saw digitally.  Real life is one place where URL tracking parameters can’t follow.

Consider this example.  A marketer creates an email list made up of the accounts of any user who has purchased a product from them over the last X amount of time.  They can then feed this list into Atlas.  Atlas will compare that list to historical data for those people, including specifically what ads they were served during that time.  If that user saw an ad for that product, it can be reasonably assumed that the advertisement influenced the purchase.  It wasn’t direct – that would mean a click through the ad and a digital conversion – but it’s there.

The Politics of Surveillance


The biggest hurdle that Facebook will have to jump to push Atlas into success is that of privacy.  The last few years have seen a rocky relationship between the social network and user data.

On one hand, nothing that Atlas is doing is new.  Every source of data collection it uses already exists and is already being harvested by some advertiser or another.  Any privacy concern leveled against Facebook could just as easily be directed at Google and remain equally valid.

On the other hand, Facebook’s reputation will have it facing extra scrutiny as it launches Atlas.  All it will take is a single high-profile failure to drive the project into the red.  It’s doubtful that the public can fight back hard enough to eliminate Atlas altogether, but it could make marketers leery of investing in the service.

The goal of Atlas, however, remains efficiency.  In essence, all of marketing comes down to making each advertisement as efficient as possible, to minimize costs and maximize profits.  Atlas uses user data to make advertisements as effective as possible, allowing marketers to access data in ways they haven’t been able to before.

The end result, for users, will very likely be an uptake in ads targeted towards their interests.  In a perfect world, this might lead to an atmosphere where advertising is not just tolerated, but accepted.  In reality, it will just make it a little less intrusive in daily activity; more like retargeting and less like split testing.

Will Atlas be a success, will it be a Google killer?  Only time will tell.


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