Google Sneaks up on Identity Management

ScreenshotAnother part of Google’s master plan has quietly debuted on a couple of their sites: Google Profiles. Most easily accessed at the moment through Google Maps (look for the “My Profile” link in the top menubar if you’re logged in to a Google account), they’re also currently integrated with Google Reader (“Settings” and then “Friends” will take you there). Google promises that Profiles will link up other Google products as well, though as yet they’re not saying which ones or how quickly this will happen.

Profiles can contain various bits of information; it’s up to the user to decide how much to enter (and thereby share with the world). There are data entry fields for name, nickname, photo, occupation, location, and 5000 characters’ worth of “about yourself.” You can also create multiple links to your own web sites. If someone else browses to a review you’ve written via Google Maps, or to a shared item in Google Reader, they can click through to your profile to see the information that you decided to share.

There are quite a few unanswered questions yet about this new service. For example, although the help page on Profile says “You control what goes into your Google Profile, sharing as much (or as little) as you’d like,” there appears to be no fine-grained control over this at all. Your contacts see everything, others see only your nickname, occupation, location, and links. If you want to share your photo publicly, you’re out of luck.

It’s not clear why Profile is a separate service instead of being part of Google Accounts, especially given that the two are clearly sharing a database; if you edit your name or nickname in one, it changes in the other. But you can’t change your photo via Accounts, and changing your default address in Accounts makes no difference to your location as reported by Profile. The lack of a unified editing page seems like a grave oversight.

Finally, it’s disturbing to not quite know what the future plans are here. Google says a Google Profile “is simply how you represent yourself on Google Products” – but is that intended to remain true for all time? With the combination of Profile and Accounts, plus the social features recently added to Reader, plus other properties in the Google arsenal like Jaiku and Orkut, it’s entirely possible that Google is planning a run at being the social networking king. On the other hand, it’s also possible that they could shop the combination around to other sites as their own answer to Passport and OpenID – a universal web identity backed by a trusted brand.

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