Slowly but surely, Google keeps building out its Google+ social network and becoming a stronger rival to Facebook. Today the company is announcing the ability to let people sign in on websites with their Google+ credentials instead of creating a unique user name and password.
At first glance this seems like no big deal. After all, you can already do the same thing with your Facebook and Twitter IDs. So in a way, Google is just playing catch-up. And for now there are only 10 developers committed to using Google+ sign-ins. They include Shazam, Fitbit and Fancy, plus the Guardian newspaper and USA Today.
But Google claims its system is better than what other social networks offer. “In many ways it's a leapfrog technology,” says David Glazer, Google+ engineering director.
There are typical Google goodies like two-step verification. But another cool thing Google has done is create a seamless connection between the desktop and mobile. Sign up for Fancy on your desktop Web browser, for example, and you’ll be asked if you’d also like the Fancy app on your Android smartphone. Say yes, and without taking your phone out of your pocket the Fancy app gets downloaded and installed onto your Android phone. Next time you take out your phone, there’s the app. “It’s kind of a wow moment,” Glazer says. “It feels like magic.”
Also, while Facebook and Twitter basically just authenticate someone’s identity, Google+ sign-ins give users better control of how their activities are shared.
Find a new song that you like, and you can share that information with just one of your Google+ circles, or even with just one individual, or with no one at all. That way you’re not constantly spamming all of your friends with an announcement about every story you’ve read or song you’ve listened to.
You can also just create a list of things you’ve liked on your profile, so people can find those things but only if they actively go looking through your profile to see what you’ve been up to lately.
That should be a better experience for users, but it’s also potentially better (and more valuable) for advertisers. Let’s say I’m looking for new music, and I know my neighbor Tony always finds cool stuff. There are two ways I might find recommendations from him. One is that he might single me out and send me a recommendation for a particular song that he thinks I’ll like. Another is that I might go to his profile and check out what songs he’s discovered lately.
In either scenario I’m much more likely to buy something (and thus much more valuable to advertisers) than if I was just one of hundreds of Tony’s friends who get randomly sprayed with every song that Tony listens to.
In a way the Google of 2013 is taking a page from the Microsoft “close follower” playbook of the 1990s.
Google wasn’t the first company to do search, or maps, or smartphone operating systems, or email or social. What Google has done, over and over, is let others go into a market first and make mistakes. Then Google goes in, figures out which features people like and which things they wish could be different, and then tries to build a better version of what others have built.
Like Microsoft of old, Google often gets derided when it first enters a market, but it keeps on iterating and getting better. In 2008, Android was a joke. By 2010 it was catching up with Apple. By the end of 2012 Android was on 75% of smartphones being sold worldwide, versus 15% for Apple. Why? Because Google did for smartphones what Microsoft did for personal computers, by creating an operating system and licensing it to dozens of hardware companies.
Google+ has taken its share of abuse. Back in November 2011 Farhad Manjoo of Slate declared Google+ was dead. A blogger at Forbes said the same thing. Then in 2012 came the articles about Google+ being a ghost town.
But Google kept chugging away, and by the end of 2012 claimed to have 500 million members on Google+.
People can and do quibble with Google’s numbers, arguing that most of the users it claims aren’t very active. Many don’t even go to Google+ itself, but just interact with it via other Gooogle sites.
Google counters by saying that the real goal of Google+ is to gather social information to make Google’s core search product more effective.
Sign-ins are just another part of this. It’s unclear whether developers will view Google+ as important enough to merit adding Google+ sign-ins to their apps. But it seems clear that Google is not giving up on its “ghost town” just yet.
Here's a video Google created to explain the sign-in feature:
Image courtesy of Reuters.