August 30th, 2011
Google Confirms It Aims to Own Your Online ID
Ever since Google (GOOG) launched its new Google+ social network, we and others have pointed out that the search giant clearly has more in mind than just providing a nice place for people to share photos of their pets. For one thing, Google needs to tap into the “social signals” that people provide through networks such as Facebook so it can improve its search results. There’s a larger motive, too: As Chairman and former Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt admitted during an interview in Edinburgh over the weekend, Google is taking a hard line on the real-name issue because it sees Google+ as an “identity service” or platform on which it can build other products.
Schmidt’s comments came during an interview with Andy Carvin, the National Public Radio digital editor who has become a one-man newswire during the Arab Spring revolutions. Carvin asked the Google chairman about the company’s reasoning for pushing its real-name policies on Google+—a policy that many have criticized (including us) because it excludes potentially valuable viewpoints that might be expressed by political dissidents and others who prefer to remain anonymous. In effect, Schmidt said Google isn’t interested in changing its policies to accommodate those kinds of users: If people want to remain anonymous, he said, then they shouldn’t use Google+.
It was the former Google CEO’s remarks about the rationale for this policy that were most interesting: He didn’t just say—as Vic Gundotra, the Google executive in charge of the new social network has—that having real names maintains a certain tone of behavior that is preferable to anonymous forums (an argument that online-community pioneer Derek Powazek has also made). According to Carvin, Schmidt said the reason Google needs users with real names is that the company sees Google+ as the core of an identity platform it is building that can be used for other things:
He (Eric) replied by saying that G+ was built primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information.
As Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson noted in a blog post in response to Schmidt’s comments, this is an admission by the company that it wants to be an identity gatekeeper. Others have made similar observations since the launch of Google+. Programmer and online veteran Dave Winer, for example, said—when the real-name policy first started to become a hot-button issue—that Google’s purpose was clearly to “provide identity in a commerce-ready way. And to give them information about what you do on the Internet, without obfuscation of pseudonyms.” In his blog post, Fred Wilson said:
It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.
As I tried to outline in a recent GigaOM Pro research report entitled “How social search is changing the search industry” (subscription required), there’s an obvious search-related rationale for launching a social network such as Google+ because indexing and mining that kind of activity can help the company provide better “social search” results. But the real-name issue has more to do with Google’s other business: namely, advertising. Users who are anonymous or pseudonymous are arguably a lot less valuable to advertisers than those who choose to attach their real identitie—including their age, gender, location, and further demographic details—to their accounts.
What kind of services is Schmidt referring to when he says that Google is looking at Google+ as an identity platform that could support other services? Dave Winer thinks the company wants to effectively become a bank—something he suspects Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN) are interested in as well. Apple and Google both seem interested in NFC technology (near-field communication), which turns mobile devices into electronic wallets; having a social network tied to an individual user’s identity would come in handy. Ross Dawson says Google wants to build a “reputation engine,” using Google+ as a platform.
Whatever its specific interests, Google clearly sees Facebook as a competitive threat, not just because it has developed a gigantic social network with hundreds of millions of devoted users, but because it has also become a kind of identity gatekeeper—with tens of millions of those devoted users happily logging into other websites and services with their Facebook credentials, thus sending Facebook valuable data about what they are doing and where they are doing it. The ubiquitous “like” button provides even further data, something Google is also trying to mimic with its +1 buttons.
The bottom line is that Google needs to have a horse in this identity race. It has been unable to create one so far. The growth of Google+ provides a reason for people to create Google profiles, and that data—along with their activity on the network and through +1 buttons—goes into the vast Google cyberplex where it can be crunched and indexed and codified in a hundred ways. The more people who decide to do it, the better it gets, both for Google and for its advertising strategy. As the saying goes: If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product being sold.
That’s the obvious background to the real-name issue, something Eric Schmidt has effectively confirmed with his remarks in Edinburgh. It remains to be seen if users like the position that puts them in.