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Nick Plante

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Who Am I? Google Knows.

April 23, 2009

Let's get all existential for a moment. Who are you? Who am I? Who are any of us? If you really want to know, and you don't know where to start, what do you do? You Google it.

Researching a public figure? You Google them. Interviewing a job candidate? Google them. Trying to find out who that guy is that keeps writing nasty comments on your blog? Google him too. Of course, what Google might return when searching for your name doesn't necessary indicate who you are, or what you do. But that's likely to change as Google moves further into people search.

Awhile back, Google rolled out this relatively inauspicoius thing called Google Profiles. And no one really cared. But earlier this week, Profiles started getting a bit more attention, as the company rolled out a feature that would return suggested profile matches when searching for a name (see my profile displayed at the bottom of the page for this query). Furthermore, searching for the keyword "me" will now prompt you to create such a profile.

These Google Profiles, integrated in such a way, have a lot of potential to be the big, standardized directory of identities on the Internet. And there are certainly good things about that; particularly for John and Jane Smith, who probably don't have the SEO-fu needed to make it to the top of the search results for their own names. But there are clearly things about this proposition that might make you a bit wary too.

I'm not a huge Internet privacy advocate myself, but there are obvious arguments from that camp. What I'm more concerned with myself is the intentions of a company, like Google, that wants to collect and own this information. Google is essentially giving its users (and Internet users at large) more control over their online identity in exchange for more information about yourself. The more data that you choose to enter in your profile, the more likely your profile will be to show up earlier in the profile results for your name. What might Google do with this data? Any number of things. But it's no secret that Google is, at the heart of it, an advertising company.

Of course, that said, the trade-off of free (quality!) products and services for advertising and demographic information is nothing new, and I don't have any particular reason to expect Google to do anything particularly nefarious with this information. Actually, I'm happy to see a *simple* service for online identities emerge, and there's certainly much potential for using this collected data via Google's APIs (a specific profiles API has yet to be announced -- is it possible this information will be accessible through the Social Graph API?).

Would I prefer someone other than Google, like chi.mp, to be the central repository of identity data on the Internet? Maybe. chi.mp at least has OpenID integration, but that'd be easy for Google to roll out if they wanted to commit to it. Ultimately, I guess the real question is whether or not it matters what company or organization owns your profile data on the Internet. Ultimately, what really matters, is how people find you on the Internet. And that isn't changing.

Google already owns that, anyway.

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