Eric Schmidt's comments that Google+ is primarily an identity service seem to have caught many by surprise as though the launch of the social network/layer was a purely benign act for the anti-Facebook crowd.
The biggest criticism of Google in recent times has been that they don't get social. The failure of Wave, privacy row over Buzz, inability of Orkut to take hold on a global scale have all led some to argue that the search giant just doesn't understand. Even now, when Google appears to have a service that can realistically compete with the likes of Facebook, detractors are saying that the real names policy shows company still doesn't get it.
Wrong. Google understands social perfectly.
Looking back over my posts from last year when rumour swayed between Google releasing a social network or a social layer I could see the benefits of the social layer approach as a means of promoting and expanding the use of their existing stable of products. Various acquisitions meant that Google had a sprawling service base with little connection between them. The growth of competitors introducing social aspects (either in-house or by linking to other services such as Twitter) also meant that something was needed to stop users migrating away.
As I have mentioned with the changes Facebook have implemented recently, providers need to offer just enough to retain their users. Google has done this and more. It understands that social is a massive driver and, if they are to compete, adding a compelling social component to their services is a must.
Eric Schmidt's comments that the social network side of Google+ is 'bait' are easy to understand. The impact of social cannot be underestimated and the search giant has realised that they can no longer exist outside of the social bubble and still exert the same influence.
So why is Google+ an identity provider?
To use social effectively we must look for connections, patterns, trends; as I said in April last year our relationships on the web are the real social currency - by identifying our likes and interests we can be better targeted by services. By integrating this with an identity provider that knowledge can be used to expand the reach to third parties.
As I have posted before, the overriding factor with identity provision is trust - this is why we have passports and driving licences; we need to be able to prove who we are to reap the benefits in life. Using real names (and rolling out an identity verification scheme) on the social web is a way to build that level of trust.
Facebook may not have begun with the same aspirations but, as I've mentioned before, it was always intended that it should be used with real names. How many of those complaining about the real names policy on Google+ are actively using Facebook I wonder?
Fred Wilson wrote that it "begs the question of whom Google built this service for" but, in my mind, there is no question. Google are building Google+ because they need it to compete and stay relevant. They need it to retain the users they already have, they need it to attract new users and they need it to be able to better monetise those users both internally and by establishing trust with other parties who can leverage the data they are collecting (for a fee).
Social networks may give us a way to expand our connections, strengthen those we already have and allow us to interact in new ways but, in reality, we are becoming social chattel for the networks. Our continued interaction is of value to the networks in order to establish these patterns and trends - we are, after all, the sources of the data they are mining.
If you are not happy being used in this manner then don't be social; if you are not happy giving your real name don't use Google+ or Facebook.
Image by Archigeek