Google Offers Social Sign-In Alternative to Facebook

Pits two companies as rivals for online identities

Facebook has pretty much become the Social Security Administration when it comes to unified online identities, thanks to Facebook Connect. Sure, not everyone or every publisher or every app developer use Facebook’s social sign-in, but the social network has positioned itself as the dominant online identity registrar. Google thinks it has something to say about that.

The search giant has added the ability for online and mobile publishers as well as app developers to start using Google+ as a sign-in option. As with Facebook Connect, signing in with Google+ would connect a user’s on-site or in-app activity with their Google+ account. At launch, USA Today, The Guardian, Fitbit, Fancy, OpenTable and Shazam are among the publishers/developers to add Google+ as a sign-in option.

When users sign in to an app or site with Google+, they’ll receive a prompt explaining what Google+ information the publisher or developer will be able to access and the ability to specify who on Google+ will be able to see things shared from the site or app. As with Facebook, users can edit either option and opt out of sharing altogether.

When users do share their actions to Google+, those actions will show up in other users’ streams as interactive posts, which users can then click to open the app in the context of the post. For example, someone could click to buy a posted product or listen to a shared song.

That may sound really similar to the idea Facebook promulgated when announcing Open Graph in September 2011 that led to the flood of Spotify songs shared to users’ News Feeds. Google is aiming not to wholly recreate that oversharing environment, and even took a jab at Facebook in detailing how Google+ sign-in would manage what on-site or in-app actions get shared to someone’s Google+ followers.

“Google+ doesn’t let apps spray ‘frictionless’ updates all over the stream, so app activity will only appear when it’s relevant (like when you’re actually looking for it),” wrote Google+ director of product management Seth Sternberg in a blog post announcing the news.

The real implication of Google+ as a social sign-on—assuming its 500 million registered users adopt the option, which could improve active user numbers—is the data grab as a counter to Facebook’s. The widespread use of Facebook Connect has filled out the ever-more-rich picture Facebook has of some users because it lets the social network see what sites and apps a user actually uses as opposed to simply likes. The precise popularity of Facebook Connect is unknown, but as more people and publishers adopt it, Facebook will get a more comprehensive view of users’ behaviors that can inform how the social network can target ads. Facebook’s ongoing courtship of mobile app developers—during which the company has been dangling carrots aimed at enticing them to integrate Facebook—suggests the company is well aware.

And Google’s announcement suggests that company is aware of Facebook’s potential as well. Google already casts an extremely wide net in being able to see what non-Google sites or apps people use, but Google+ sign-in would give them an idea of how people are using those sites and apps—if they choose to use Google+ in doing so. And that's a big if, given consumer's lukewarm embrace of Google+.