Google+ has never looked and felt as it good as it does right now. Alas, looks aren't everything.
A massive overhaul of the service, announced Wednesday during a keynote at Google's I/O conference for developers, has brought it in line with the most modern and functionally powerful Web design principles. It now has a multi-column layout, scrolling menu bars, and enormous images. Google also rolled out an umbrella messaging service called Hangouts, a standalone app for Web and mobile that neatens up the sloppy mess that was Voice, Talk, and Google+ messaging.
All of this is great news for heavy users of Google+ who have been awaiting a design push that looks and feels like 2013. But there's still one giant problem plaguing the service and Google's entire social platform at large: the hub of your Google life is still an email address, and that's a nightmare for users with multiple Gmail accounts.
Since taking over as CEO in 2011, Larry Page has been talking up the notion of "One Google" to unify the search giant's disparate services. But the reality is that it's very hard as a user to experience a unified Google until Google realizes that a person is a person, not an email account.
At best, the complex process of trying to manage multiple Gmail accounts with Google+ and all the various apps involved slows users down. At worst, it could keep some users from adopting the beautiful new services altogether.
Two Accounts, Twice The Pain
"For me personally, I have two Google accounts: I have a corporate and personal [account], and it is a pain," admitted Seth Sternberg, director of product management for Google+, in a roundtable discussion with reporters in San Francisco Thursday. And Sternberg is definitely not alone. Many people have two Google email accounts—a personal Gmail and a corporate Google Apps account. Those ought to be Google's best users. Instead, they're the most frustrated ones.
And many people set up multiple email accounts for other reasons. Social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn let them associate multiple email addresses with a single personal or professional identity. Google doesn't.
What that ends up doing is disrupting the entire process of laying the Google+ social net atop the Web. Every time a user tries to +1 a link, log into a website with Google+ sign-in, or personalize search, they're confronted with Google's fragmented view of online identity.
So for Google, the email-as-account concept disrupts users' ability to seamlessly use Google+, which in turn makes the network's constantly increasing integration with the rest of the company's apps and services more and more painful with every turn. And for users, it's just plain obnoxious having to use incognito browser windows and all sorts of other workarounds to try and simply manage their online identity.
No wonder Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are the go-to networks for finding friends and sharing information.
Identity, If And When You Want It
Google says it's trying to get better.
"We sanded off all the rough edges," David Glazer, a director of engineering at Google, said in the recent roundtable event. Google, to its credit, has introduced an account chooser that makes it easier to stay logged into multiple accounts.
But those fixes don't address the core problem—Google's email-linked identity model.
What Google really needs is something above an email address that could be used as an identifier for all of a user's various accounts. This higher-level identifier could be something akin to a Twitter handle or a Facebook username.
This new Google login could have a registered primary email address—the way Apple and Amazon handle logins to their online accounts—but it should sync up your other Google+ accounts.
Separating personal and professional sharing could be simply handled with a strongly established Google+ concept: Circles, or lists of contacts.
(And, of course, you should still be able to establish a Gmail account for an unlinked, throwaway identity—for, say, a Craigslist posting or mailing lists.)
Umbrellas Are Good
Google showcased its ability to neatly fold up services with Hangouts, and the strategy is a no-brainer. It resolves so many problems users face when a company's products are all around them, yet they have no idea how to manage them all and end up just turning away from what they feel they don't need.
An umbrella strategy to Google+ and Gmail is a much taller order, but it's one of the biggest impediments standing between the search giant and a more steady, fuller-scale adoption of its social network. So Google, please give us that umbrella, and you'll likely see more people standing underneath it if its done right.