You can now buy things from Facebook bots

An update brings support for payments, custom UI, new ads, and more

Facebook bots will now be able to conduct business and display their own custom user interfaces, after an update aimed at enhancing its platform capabilities.

With Monday's update, companies like travel search site Hipmunk will be able to sell users hotel and flight reservations directly from its Messenger bot. Facebook is working with banks and payment processors like Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, and Stripe to facilitate commerce through bots, said David Marcus, Facebook's vice president of messaging products. Payments are available only to certain bot operators in the U.S. at the moment.

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Screenshots showing how custom web views work inside Messenger bots

Bots will also be able to display web views inside Messenger, allowing for greater customization of how they can function. Bots will be able to determine the height of the window and adjust their interfaces appropriately to fit inside the conversation, according to Marcus. Bot developers will also be able to start user interactions using a new landing page aimed at helping orient their users with how the bot works.

Improving Messenger may increase engagement with Facebook's standalone messenger app, which currently has about a billion active users. Facebook is facing tough competition in the bot platform space from Slack, Skype, Telegram, and other messaging service operators.

Right now, the company hasn't published any statistics on how people are using bots, other than the fact that there are 11,000 bots running on the platform as of July.

The improvements to Facebook's bot platform are important, especially after the functionality launched at the F8 developer conference in April was fairly bare-bones. Marcus said he thought Facebook's first bot platform launch was "overhyped," and the capabilities available were less powerful than what people have come to expect from native applications.

In spite of that, Marcus said that the bot platform has served a handful of bot types fairly well, especially news bots that provide users with alerts about what's going on in the world.

Bots using the new features in the platform will be able to mix and match a bunch of different capabilities together. With that, users can search for a product, view it in a pre-loaded web view, pay for it, and then get a message posted to the messaging thread about it.

"We believe that bringing all of these types of different modal experiences together is ultimately what is going to make the platform successful over time," Marcus said.

As part of Facebook's continuing push behind Messenger bots, the company will be launching ads that will take users from their News Feed to a conversation inside Messenger, too. Some of those ads will be used to try to drive interest in a new bot from Absolut vodka that will let users get a free drink at participating bars.

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