December 2, 2013

User-Profile Privacy and Avoiding Google Plus

People are expressing legitimate concerns over Google's push for users to have a user-profile and a Google+ account.  Some of these concerns revolve around issues of privacy because they simply don't want their personal information made public.  Others don't want another social-media portal so they don't want to use Google+ at all.

It's true that there are some cases where a user-profile is now required, for example to make comments on YouTube videos.  Fortunately it's possible to create a user-profile that fulfills the requirements but supplies virtually no actual information.  And using Google+ is totally optional.  Having a user-profile does not force one to use Google+ any more than having a driver's license forces one to drive.

The purpose of this article is to help you create the most restricted user-profile possible as well as eliminate almost all of the impact of Google+ in your account.  This will provide access to any products and services that require a user-profile as well as stop any reminders or nagging to create one.  This may not satisfy everyone, but for most users concerned about their privacy it will provide a good balance between privacy and product access.

Creating a minimal user-profile

While some may not remember that far back, Gmail only required three pieces of personal information when initially creating the account:  your name, your gender, and your birth date.  Your name is used along with your e-mail address on every sent message unless you modify that behavior in Settings->Accounts->Send Mail As.

Of course you are expected to use your real name, but you are not required to use your full name on the account.  The Google+ Profile Names Policy ( states in the section "Can I just use my initials or my first name?" that:

You must provide a two-part name. It’s acceptable for one of these to be an initial, but not both. For example, “Jane Smith,” “Jane S.,” and “J. Smith” are allowed, but “J. S.” isn’t.

This is important since your name is the one piece of information that is publicly available.  If you do not want your full name visible you will want to take advantage of the above option.  And since first names are usually more generic than last names, people typically select their first name and last initial.

There are a couple ways you may be prompted to create a user-profile.  You might see the nag screen that Google will occasionally display.

Or you may be forced to create one if you use a product like YouTube that requires a user-profile to make comments.

You can also do it anytime you want by clicking on your name/address in the upper/right of your Gmail page and clicking the blue "Join Google+" button.

In each case you are required to provide the same three pieces of information you did when you initially created the account. For reasons known only to Google, the name and birth date fields are pre-populated, but you get to select your gender again including the marvelous option of "other".  Those desiring to select "I don't know" should use "other".

Once you have added Google+ you will notice that the upper/right part of each page in your Google account has change from just your name/address to a number of different icons.

Clicking on the +Name (typically your first name) will take you to Google+.  If you hover your mouse over the drop-down menu indicator next to "Home" you will get a drop-down of views to go to.  Select "Profile".  You can also click on your picture/avatar in the upper/right and select "View profile" from the drop-down panel.

From the profile page, click on the "About" tab and you will be viewing your initial user-profile.

At this point everything is undefined except your name, and two items, Gender and Birthday, in "Basic information".  Click on the "Edit" link and use the drop-down menus to set your Gender and Birthday to "Only you" and click the "Save" button.

You can set all the fields to "Only you" if you wish.  In fact, you can edit every sub-category and do that for every item of information.  But it doesn't matter since all the information is blank so there's nothing to show.

You do have to visit the "People" section and click the "Edit" link.  Uncheck the "Show people in..." and "Show people who have added you to circles" options.  Then click "Save".  If you never created any circles, and no one adds you, it doesn't matter.  But it's still best to turn them off.

You are now finished editing your user-profile. To view what everyone else can see, go to the upper right and change the selection from "View profile as: Yourself" to "Public".

Initially your public profile would look as follows, with only your name and gender visible.  Of course this isn't really that bad as there's so little personal information visible.

After the above changes, it will look like the following.  When you lock down Google+ (in the next section) you will also end up removing the Photos, Videos, +1's (not seen here), and Reviews tabs.

Note that if you have a YouTube channel, the public profile will also show a link to that.

So at this point your public user-profile has been reduced to a partial name (first name, last initial) and possibly a link to your YouTube channel.

And before moving on there is one other option that should be mentioned, and that is the use of a Google+ Page which is often used by businesses and companies who want a web-presence not associated with a specific person.  In some cases this could be another way to protect one's privacy.

Reducing the impact of Google+

The next step, assuming you don't want to use it, is to do everything possible to make Google+ go away.  Obviously, you will never make any posts to Google+.  You will not create any circles nor add anyone to a circle.  But you also want to prevent Google+ sending you any e-mail, ever.

Once again, use the drop-down menu on your Google+ page and select "Settings" (the last item in the list).  This will take you to the Google+ page of your Google account settings.

You will start at the top and basically turn everything you can off.  We'll skip a few sections that don't matter or are already off.

  • Who can interact with you and your posts - send everything to "Only you".
  • Who can Hangout with you - click the Customize button and make sure everything is set to "Send request" (which means people can request a hangout which you can ignore).  Also uncheck the "Get notified about Hangout requests".
  • Shared Endorsements - click the Edit link, uncheck the box at the bottom, and Save.
  • Manage subscriptions - uncheck everything.
  • Receive notification - uncheck e-mail notifications for everything.
  • Photos - uncheck everything.
  • Profile - uncheck everything.  Note that unchecking the profile tabs will remove those from your public user-profile which locks it down a bit better.  The only ones left will be:  About and Posts (which will be empty if you never post).  Also particularly note the last entry "Help others discover my profile in search results" as unchecking this one prevents search engines from indexing your profile.
  • Hashtags - uncheck.
  • Your circles - click the Customize button, uncheck everything, and Save.

After completing all this, Google+ has been rendered pretty harmless.  Your user-profile will be available to people you send e-mail to.  But if they view it the only thing they will see is your name (which they would already have from your e-mail address).  If they add you to one of their circles, it doesn't matter.  You'll never see any of their posts if you don't read Google+.  And if you never post, there's nothing for anyone else to see.

You may get notification of events (like being added to someone's circle) in the bell icon in the upper/right of your account, but you can ignore those or click on the bell and clear any pending notifications.

Here is an article that talks about some other opt-out settings you may wish to consider:  5 Google Opt-Out Settings To Check.

Again, this solution isn't perfect for everyone.  You do still have a user-profile and a Google+ account.  But it does a pretty good job of protecting your privacy and reducing the impact of Google+ on your day-to-day use of Gmail.