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Gmail, Identity & Strategic Focus

November 9th 2017

by Jason Costa

Google’s forays into social are well documented, and there have been many debates around what could have been done on the product front for the company to be successful in that space. One wonders though if the pieces were already there to tackle an adjacent, equally important opportunity — identity on the internet. All through the linchpin of Gmail.

Back in 2004 when Gmail launched, most folks thought it was an April Fools joke. It was such an incredible leap forward from where most email clients operated back then, available in an intuitive AJAX UI and with 1GB(!) of storage, all as a web service. Today, Gmail has more than 1B monthly active users, and continues to grow steadily. Google offered very few services outside of search at this time, but slowly more products started to form into a constellation of Google services. One important piece to the Gmail puzzle that has only become clear over time is the product’s naming schema — and how this linchpin could tie all of these services together.

Just a few years after Gmail launched, circa 2008, it became increasingly obvious that identity would be incredibly important across the web. People grew tired of having to create new accounts and remember different passwords for every new site. Email is still largely the mechanism for such identity keys.

But here’s the rub — the naming schema for Gmail and “Google Accounts” was different, which introduced major cognitive overhead for users who simply didn’t understand the difference between the two. In reality, there shouldn’t have been a difference at all. A user could use any email provider (@yahoo.com, @aol.com, @gmail.com, etc.) to create their “Google Account”, and that would allow for access to other services (Maps, YouTube, etc.). But for all intents and purposes, it should have just been a one to one mapping — where your Gmail account *is* your Google Account, and users could “Sign in with Google” via a @google.com namespace.

Google had an identity mechanism in its palm that users easily understood — effectively solving for authentication, representation, and communication with the end user. Instead, Google looked to the email account to solve a fundamentally different problem: social. The company then followed with several “me too” social products (Buzz, Google+, etc), rather than leaning into its own strengths.

Leaning into your Strengths

Now, Google leaning into its own strengths means two things above all else:

  • Awareness
  • Brand affinity

Awareness simply means that the Google brand even back then was ubiquitous; everyone knew what Google was. And they liked Google — hence, the brand affinity piece. People forget this now, but Google was a massively beloved brand back in 2003/04 (when Gmail was launched in Labs). These were Google’s strengths, and they were a major competitive advantage to just about any other player.

Instead, they first tried to compete by offering a social product, Buzz, and that experience led to a real erosion in consumer trust. Later, Google opted to launch Google+ as the sign in mechanism. The G+ upgrade flow was complex and complicated: was I logging in with Gmail, my Google account, or my Google+ profile?

This is important because it defines account ownership when you login to another service with your email account. It is the path by which a user verifies their account, and where the password recovery flow takes place. This is a fundamentally critical pillar in the relationship a user has with another service. If the “Google Account” via email had become the fundamental way by which a user accessed other services, it could have set the standard for internet identity. Instead, things became extremely fragmented….

Don’t play a Competitor’s Game

Instead of solving the social problem, Google could have driven a real solution around authentication, representation (“who I am”) and communication (“how I can be reached”). These are major value propositions to the end user, as well as to the app / publisher: this provides a reason for both cohorts to utilize such an identity service. If Google had named Gmail as “Google Mail”, and given users a “xyz@google.com” email address, it would have stripped away cognitive load and given users a clear understanding of the broader identity tie-in with other Google services, beyond just email. Google employees could have been migrated to a @corp.google.com address. Then, this user identity mechanism could have been syndicated out to 3rd party apps and publishers, in addition to 1st party properties (YouTube, etc.).

While this identity-centric approach might not have driven the same level of referral traffic that a social feed does for publishers, the open secret is that most companies still derive the lion’s share of their traffic acquisition from Google search. Given the data Google would have procured around registration and engagement on other sites by “owning” identity, it could have gained even more leverage in ad targeting (lookalike audience profiles, re-engagement ads, etc.).

Conclusion

When it comes to product development amongst a multitude of service offerings — one of the hardest things to do is understand how all of the pieces will fit together in the future. One little tweak on the naming schema, for instance, could affect a product’s trajectory. Obviously no one has a crystal ball on how things will shake out, but that’s the level of thought and foresight that a team has to put into getting things right. Equally important, don’t induce an unnecessary level of cognitive overhead for your users; make it simple for them, all the way down to the product namespace. Especially if you want to transition your product into a platform later.

Some key takeaways here are:

  • Focus on the problem area where you have strength, don’t play to your competitor’s
  • Look for ways you can tilt the field in your favor (“identity” vs “social”, for instance)
  • Don’t introduce abstract hierarchies into the product; keep it simple, down to the name
  • Think up front, as deeply as you can, about how something can fit into the broader product puzzle down the line
  • If different teams are working on different parts of the product suite, make sure they’re in constant contact. This is often a root cause of unnecessary product complexity

In this case, focusing on “identity” rather than “social” and leveraging a widely adopted asset (email) would have facilitated Google’s control over authentication, representation, and communication between users and apps / publishers. It could have easily moved into personalization with those sites too, but without the obligations of friend requests, content creation, sharing, and so on. What if Google had just named Gmail as “Google Mail”, and that was your “Google Account”? Indeed, email could have been much more than just an inbox.

Jason Costa is currently an EIR investing at GGV Capital. This post is part of an ongoing series aimed at exploring topics such as consumer product development, platform analysis, and strategy.

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