Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Google Account and You

Ever since Google added Google+ there’s been a non-stop flood of people who really, really, don’t understand the Google ecosystem. This flood peaked when Google added Google+ integration to YouTube (which goes beyond the comments. The effectiveness of said integration is beyond the scope of this article). One of the most common arguments I see people repeating is that they were somehow forced to have a Google+ account.

As it turns out, they weren’t, because there’s no such thing as a Google+ account.

The Google Ecosystem

You’ve probably heard this expression tossed around once or twice. What does it mean though? Well, it’s fairly simple: the Google ecosystem is a group of services provided by Google that interact with one another. The most well known is Search. When you ‘Google’ something you are actually using Search, Google’s first and most successful service. 

Some other names which are also household staples: GMail, Docs / Drive, Calendar and … YouTube. 

Yes, YouTube is a Google SERVICE. It used to be its own website, but it was bought by Google and became one of their services, with integration to Photos, Hangouts, and Google+. Think Microsoft and Hotmail. 

The Google Account

You used to have separate accounts for each of your Google services. Youtube had an account, GMail had an account (which was the same as Calendar…). When Google started adding up more services, though, they needed a way to make it easy for them to interact. At first, you were able to link accounts to each other, thus starting a convoluted mess. Of course, the more elegant solution then became to have one unified account that would communicate with all Google services the user chose to use. 

This unified account was exempt from service opt-in. By having a Google account, the user has easy and automatic access to every single Google service, without the need for lengthy separate account creations, merges and multiple passwords. 

Is this forced on you? Well, if you want to use Google services to their fullest… of course! But really… do you know of any website or platform that allows you to use their services to the fullest without some sort of user account? They’re dying breeds. Facebook needs an account. So does Twitter, Tumblr, Microsoft, Apple, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc. The list goes on and on. 

Enter Android

The need for a unified user account became even more critical with the introduction of Android (and to some extent, Chrome OS), Google’s mobile operating system. There was a need to have some way to store what kind of apps the user could access, know which ones they’d paid for. Of course, with Google’s own products, having a Google account associated with the device also made it very easy for the user to start using Google’s apps right from the initial setup. 

Why Google+?

There is something common to every account on every website you make. This area often goes neglected and only filled to the bare minimum (maybe you’ll setup an avatar and a signature and some platform settings…). I’m talking, of course, about the profile. That little page you barely visit while you use the bulk of the website. 

The profile is a useful, integral part of the service though. It allows you to project an identity to the service, with a username and a picture. It allows you to tweak settings. Many profiles also allow you to post status in your own personal sort of feed, independent from the rest of the website.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. Google+ is a profile, an identity layer over Google’s services. It can be as neglected or as curated as you wish. You can make as many status updates as you’d like… or none at all! It’s just there to give you an identity and how you use it is mostly up to you.

The Social Network

Google+ is also a social network, but that is definitely not its primary objective, nor is it its reason to exist. If everyone stopped posting to G+ (which will definitely not happen in the near future) then it would still be there. Google would have no reason to pull the plug on it. Maybe they’d kill the ‘stream’ and only leave the about page as a simple profile. But Google+ itself wouldn’t go away. 

Google+ Account?

When YouTube was young and before Google decided to create a unified account for their services, it had a separate account. Google+ never existed in this phase. When it was introduced, unified Google accounts already existed and were firmly established. It was only natural that current users and new users alike were given access to it, both to its profile component and its service component. 

But… why?

Google is an ad company. As many wonderful services as it provides, nothing changes the fact that it does so to gather data so it can serve targeted ads to users. That’s how Google makes money and honestly, as long as my data isn’t given to advertisers I’m ok with that. I’ve accepted it. If I hadn’t, I would have canceled my Google account (which you can do here). I personally believe that Google is doing a lot more good than harm to the world. 

They need the data though. Google+ makes it easier to gather that data. The social component of it allows Google to look into what you like, what makes you happy, and improve their algorithms accordingly. 

In the end, if you don’t like it, if you disagree, you are always welcome to opt out. Cancel your Google account, cancel your facebook account, cancel all the accounts to services that you’re not paying for. I challenge you to try to use the internet in those conditions. Spoiler: You probably can’t. 

“If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."
- A MetaFilter user apparently