16 January 2012

Google Accounts - how they work

One common theme running through all the Help Forums is confusion about Google accounts and what you can and can’t do with - and to - them.

So what exactly IS a Google account?
A Google account is an entity that is permanently linked to a unique and specific ID - always an email address (and not necessarily a GMail address - see below) - which you access by signing in with that unique ID and a password. It can house one or many Google products, such as GMail, YouTube, Docs, Calendar, Blogger, Picasa....

In fact, a Google account is rather like a house. It has a unique street address - its username. The house has several rooms in which different Google products are located. Each product room has its own filing cabinet where the product data is stored. The Google account ID is the key to the front door of the house. Once you put the key in the lock and turn it - i.e. sign in to that account - you can access all the products and all the stored data in the filing cabinets in the various rooms. In the lobby of the house on the telephone table is the address book for that account - the Contacts List. Most of the products in the house can use the Contacts List and some can update and add to it.

How do I get a Google account?
For many of us, the creation of a Google account happens automatically when we decide to start using GMail, and create a Gmail account. The username you choose when creating the account becomes your permanent GMail address for that email account, and is also used as the unique ID for the Google account which houses your email product.

If you don’t use GMail, until recently you could still create a Google account - to use, say, Docs or the Calendar - and link it to an external email address that you have at Hotmail or Yahoo or your ISP’s mail service.  If you later add the Gmail product to such an account, then the username you choose for  the new Gmail account automatically becomes the “primary” ID for that Google account. But the original ID remains permanently connected as a secondary ID, and you can use either the Gmail address or the original ID to sign in. The “primary” ID – the Gmail address – is the one that will be used for display purposes in the top right corner of your Google account pages.

These non-Gmail secondary addresses are called alternate addresses or alternate IDs - you can sign in with them as well as with the Gmail address, and they are a real alternative ID for the whole account and all its data. 

You can add an alternate address/ID to a Gmail account if you wish. Any non-Gmail address that is not attached to or linked with another Google account can be added. Google will verify it, and that you own it, before they will allow you to do  it, but after that, you can use it interchangeably with the Gmail address as the account ID.

This can in fact cause some baffling problems as it is easy for inappropriate addresses to be added as alternates.  Many people, for example, confuse alternate addresses with simple recovery email addresses, and inadvertently set up alternate IDs instead of just adding a recovery email address.  This happens most between husbands and wives, close friends, partners - one party will add the other's non-Gmail address as an alternate ID instead of a recovery email address.  The opposite party willingly verifies the address, and so that address now becomes an alternative ID for the original account.  

That's how husbands end up with their wives' names and pictures on their Google Profiles and even on their outgoing mail!  It's why a woman's business colleagues will see entirely the wrong contact information when they receive an email from her.  It's how Facebook look-ups done by Outlook.com/Hotmail users go wrong and get linked to incorrect information. 

But it's easy to put right - just sign into the original account and in Account Settings, remove the alternate address, before re-adding the same address as a simple recovery email address instead. A recovery email address has no ID implications, and the account will revert to its original single Gmail ID. 

For more information on this last topic of mismatched-profiles caused by inappropriate alternate IDs, see http://gmail-miscellany.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/wrong-picture-wrong-name.html

How do I use my Google account?
Once you have a Google account, you can add any Google product of your choice to that account. The ID of the Google account becomes your ID when you use that product. Any data you create using that product is stored under that ID. When you sign in to that account, you can easily switch between the products you have added to that account by choosing them from the top Google Bar.

Many people do not appreciate this structure, and simply sign in to GMail to check their mail, and sign out again when finished. Consequently, when deciding to try out Picasa or Docs, they are asked to sign in or create a Google account. As they don’t realise they already have a Google account which houses their GMail account, instead of signing in with their GMail ID, they create a new Google account. When they decide they’d like to start a blog, they go to Blogger, and repeat the same process. So many users actually end up with multiple Google accounts, each one often used for only one or two products, and have to sign in and out whenever they switch products so that they can access their stored product data.

Right data - wrong account?
That’s how we can end up with product data being linked to the “wrong” Google account.  Let’s try some examples to see how that can happen:
  • Fred is signed into the Google account he uses for Picasa, for example, when he decides to draft an article for his next Blog post - he clicks on Docs in the Google bar and is taken to the Docs product. He creates a new Google document, starts writing his article, and saves it. Next day, he signs into the Google account he uses for GMail, checks his mail, and then decides to finish his article. So he goes to Docs from his Google bar, and finds to his horror that his document is missing!  It isn’t, of course, but he is signed in to a different Google account to the one in which he created his masterpiece the day before so that document isn’t available to him.
  • Or John sets up Google+ whilst still signed into the Google account he uses for work. He spends time setting up Circles, adding his contacts, and browsing his Stream.  Next day, he checks his personal GMail account for email, and whilst there decides to check for new things on Google+. To his shock, when he clicks on Google+,  he has no Circles, no Stream - it’s all gone!  Not at all - it’s still all there in the Google account he used to create it, but it is not accessible unless he is signed in to that account. And what’s worse, he realises he doesn’t want Google+ linked to his professional account - he really meant to add it to his personal account.
  • Even worse is when a relative comes to visit and signs in on your computer to check their GMail for new messages. They forget to sign out - and you decide to do something you’ve been meaning to do for weeks, i.e. create a work Calendar. You go to iGoogle, and without checking the sign-in info in top right hand corner, click on Calendar and labour away putting all your work appointments and reminders into a new Calendar. But sadly, your nice new Calendar is now firmly connected to your mother-in-law’s Google ID....and is only accessible to you if you are signed in with her username and password.
The solution wanted by most people who make these inadvertent errors is to simply merge these accounts and bring all the data together under one Google account ID, or just swap whole products in and out of various different Google accounts. But merging isn't possible, and swapping product data between accounts isn’t available for all products.  See the links below for what you can move and what you can't. 

So why isn’t it generally possible?
Let’s go back to our Google account house...

A few doors down from our “house” is another Google account. It has the same layout, with various Google products and their data occupying the different rooms. It may have a few different products to the house up the street - it may, for example, use You Tube and maybe it doesn’t have a GMail account at all. It too will have its own address book on its own telephone table in its own lobby. But to enter this house, you can’t use the key from the house a few doors up. You have to use a different key - the unique username or “street address” for that house - before you can open the front door.  And when you DO open the front door, and start visiting the rooms where the products live, you will find completely different sets of data in the filing cabinets. Even the address book on the lobby table is different to the one in the house next door....

Now imagine you owned both houses, and you wanted the products in the first house to be able to open the filing cabinets in the second house and vice versa. But they don’t have the front door key, so they can’t get in through the front door. You cant change the locks so that the same key opens both doors - you’d just screw up the data, because none of the products would know which filing cabinet it ought to be storing its data in, and none of the products would know where they had to look for their data.

The only way you - as the owner of both houses - could do it would be to unlock the door of the second house, photocopy all the data in the filing cabinets in the second house, and laboriously cart it up the road to the first house, unlock the door, and file away the copy documents in the correct filing cabinets in the first house. And what if the first house doesn’t use YouTube when the second house does? You’d have to build a new YouTube room and get some new empty filing cabinets to put the data in. Tedious? You bet!

This house-moving is what the Data Liberation Front - a team of Google engineers - is trying to help us to do more easily. (http://www.dataliberation.org/) Many of the documents in the filing cabinets in the various product rooms - and the address book in the lobby - CAN be copied, and the copies just walked up the road to the other house and filed away. Others can’t, and right now there’s no way to get some data out of one Google account and into another. You just have to delete the product entirely from one, and recreate it from scratch in the other.

There can be an alternative to physically moving data - with a few products, like Docs and Calendar, you can share their data between accounts. Shared data remains separately stored in the account it belongs to, but can be displayed (and some cases edited) in the other account. This is rather like giving the Calendar room in the first house a remote access connection to the Calendar room in the second house! It still involves both accounts being maintained and active, but can minimise the need to sign in to both.

Avoiding this scenario:
  • Know what you are doing with your different Google accounts and understand that they are different from each other. When you want to start using a new Google product, don’t create a new Google account just because you don’t happen to be signed in at the time - decide which Google account you want to add a new product to, and sign in to that account. Then add the product.
  • In particular, don’t sign up to Google+ unless you are sure you are signed in to the account you want to use with Google+. You can always check this by looking up in the right-hand corner of your page, where your email address is displayed. Right now getting 100% of your data out of one Google+ account and into another is not possible. You can use Google Takeout to transfer your Circle connections to a second account, provided that the second account has been created using the same Profile name as the first account.  But your stream, and some other data, whilst it can be exported, can't be transferred. 
  • Understand the “Keep me signed in” checkbox and what it does - it sets a cookie to keep you signed in to that account for 14 days. If you have this checked, and do not sign out of your Google account when you shut down for the day, when you start up your browser next time you will be signed back into that account automatically, and will bypass the sign-in page altogether. To use another one of your accounts, you must first sign out of the account you are currently signed into, to get a sign-in page where you can sign into the the other account.
    This is important for those who have just created a new account. Many users think GMail has deleted their old account when they set up a new one, because they select “Keep me signed in” the first time they access the new account - so they always bypass the sign-in page, and are never offered the chance to sign back in to the old account.
    And it is particularly important for users of a shared computer - if individual users do not sign out at the end of their session, but just close their tabs, another user trying to access their own account will be taken straight to the account that is still signed in, with no opportunity to sign in themselves. This has poor security implications as well as being frustrating.
  • Investigate Multiple Sign in, which allows multiple accounts to be signed in during a work session. The first account signed into during that session becomes the “default” account for that session. Subsequent sign-ins to other accounts become subordinate to the default for the duration of that session. Signing out of ANY of the accounts terminates the entire session and all accounts are signed out.
    This is helpful for many users - I find it invaluable to have my personal and work accounts both signed in, giving me access to the two separate GMail accounts and the different data collections associated with the products I use in each account. To get to my personal Docs, for instance, I just swap to the personal account tab and click Docs. If I want to review some images I stored in Picasa for work use, I switch to the work account tab, and click Photos. In our house analogy, this is like unlocking both front doors and trotting back and forth between the two houses.
    Some Google products don’t yet work with Multiple Sign in, so if you wish to access, for example, YouTube, at any time during the session, then you must make sure that the account you use for YouTube is the default account for the session, by signing in to it before you sign in to the other accounts you want to use simultaneously.

And finally...
  • Managing multiple Google accounts needs some discipline and does require planning if you are to get the best out of your working environment. So, to summarise:
  • Remember that if you use GMail you already have a Google account, and there is no need to create additional Google accounts for other products unless you specifically want to keep them separate from your email IDs.
  • When signing up for a new product, think about whether that product can go in one of your existing Google accounts, or whether it needs an account of its own. Act accordingly by signing in to the relevant account, or creating a new one.
  • When signing up for a new product, make sure you are NOT already signed in to an account you will regret associating that product with! Always check your address in the top right corner of the page.
  • Don’t use “Keep me signed in” as a matter of course on all your accounts and always sign out from any account you are finished with UNLESS you are using Multiple Sign-in and still want to keep other accounts for the session open.
  • Simplify working with several accounts at once by using Multiple Sign-in where it is helpful, but make sure you know the rules!
  • When deleting an account, make sure you confirm first (1) which account you are actually deleting (check the top right corner again!) and (2) which products you have attached to that account. Understand that you are deleting all that product data as well. If you want to keep any product data, export it (where possible) first.
  • If you make mistakes, ensure you know what you can and can’t do with your data by using the advice in the Help Centre and on the Data Liberation Front website.
  • To help cope with utter disaster, make sure you do backup your data regularly. Check what export procedures are available for all your products: Docs can be downloaded to your computer, while uploaded Picasa images and YouTube videos are probably still there. Contacts can be exported, as can your Calendars. GMail can be backed up in a range of ways. See http://gmail-tips.blogspot.com/2012/01/gmail-backup.html for detailed info on how to do that.

Google Accounts Help: http://support.google.com/accounts/?hl=en
Create a Google Account:  https://accounts.google.com/signup
Adding GMail: http://goo.gl/KlOHE
Adding other products: http://goo.gl/MZ1tk
Managing your Google Account: http://goo.gl/Mfhh6
What you can move and what you can’t: http://goo.gl/zDT9R
Moving Google+ Connections: https://www.google.com/takeout/?pli=1#
All about Multiple Sign-In: http://goo.gl/7F2tf
About Keep me signed in: http://goo.gl/v9lvh