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Who Are You? Google+ Really Wants To Know

Google will begin allowing users to add nicknames on Google+, Bradley Horowitz, the vice president of product at Google's social network said Tuesday.

True pseudonyms are still verboten on the network unless you go through an application process. To earn the right not to use your real name on Google+ you will have to prove you already have an online following that knows you that way.

When Google rolled out its social network last year, it had this ironclad rule: no fake names. It didn't matter if you were a Syrian activist and wanted to use Google+ to post about street protests in Damascus or a spammer — you have to use a real name or risk getting kicked off.

Why? Because for Google its social network is not really about competing with Facebook to create a place where you can hang out online. It's about figuring out who you really are.

Basically tracking the real identity of real people and collecting their online preferences is the heart of Google+ mission. Just ask Eric Schmidt.

(Sounds an awful lot like a liking something on Facebook doesn't it? Facebook's getting great data — and by the way it requires you to use real names too.)

But to understand why Google cares about this you have to go back to the beginning. When Larry Page built his first search engine he basically copied an academic system for weighting the impact of journal articles. The more time the article was cited by other papers, the more influential it was.

Page decided that links on Web pages were analogous to academic journal citations. So the more links your site had to it — the more important it was and the higher it would rank in Google's search results. Page was really just harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. In the early days of the Web, real people made those links and they were real endorsements of the content they were linking to.

The problem with Page's system was that Google became powerful and spammers decided to flood the Web with fake links to try to game the results. Sorting out real links from fake ones takes enormous effort. Basically Google's search engine engineers are in a non-stop battle with spammers — and are desperate to find a better way — or better, clearer data.

And that's where Google+ comes in. If the people on Google+ are real people and they are expressing real preferences, then their likes are real. If you sign into your Google+ account and search and browse the Web, Google can be a bit more certain there is a human being back there behind the keystrokes. It knows it's getting better data.

And for now, at least, better data is more important to Google than figuring out a way to help dissidents use its social network safely and anonymously.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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