Google+ is the new social networking kid on the block, and one of the main reasons so many people are interested in the service over Facebook is Google+'s proclaimed focus on protecting users' privacy. Whether you're a new Google+ user or you're already a pro, understanding how to control your information on the site can make you feel much more at ease on the social network. Here's the lowdown on Google+'s privacy controls, including a few of the more buried settings you'll want to know about.
This guide will take you through setting up Google+'s circles with an emphasis on how they work from a privacy perspective, how to control what others can see about you on your profile, your options for selectively sharing posts with others, and some miscellaneous settings you'll want to tweak—like only allowing friends to start Huddles with you.
A note on pseudonymity: Google has taken a strong and, I think, awfully mistaken stance on not allowing people to use Google+ with a pseudonym. While this is definitely a privacy issue, it falls outside of this post's purpose of explaining how to use Google+'s privacy settings. Kee Hinckley, a Consulting CTO for Somewhere.com and Lead Architect at Zinc.tv, has written a compelling and thorough post on the subject, and hopefully Google is listening and will rectify this issue.
Let's go tackle your main Google+ privacy settings and options:
1. Privacy and Your Circles
Circles are Google+'s uber easy way of organizing your contacts. Most of your privacy controls will stem from how you set your circles up, since you can set privacy controls for both individual posts and your profile information with these customized groups. Basically, you create a circle—such as "Family," "Work," "Tech Bloggers," etc.—and drag people you want to share information with or whose posts you want to follow into those groups.
Things you need to know:
- Your circles are private by default. The particular circle groups you set up and which people are in them are only known to you. So you can set up a "Lunatics" circle and put your boss in it and he/she and the rest of the world will be none the wiser.
- Managing who sees which posts can still be tricky with this system.The main issue is that it's important to remember who you've put in which circles. You could, by the way, purposely have placed your boss in both a Lunatics circle and Work circle, so you'll need to remember which circles you've placed her in. You'll need to be careful about selecting the right circles to share posts with (more on that in a bit).
Differences between Google+ circles and Twitter followers or Facebook friends
Lots of people like how intuitive and basic using circles is. It's much more upfront and clearer that Facebook's friends lists (which offer useful way to control your Facebook privacy), but there are also some intricacies to keep in mind about how circles work, especially if you're used to how Twitter and Facebook work:
- As with Twitter, you can follow anyone else's posts on Google+ (like, ahem, Lifehacker writers) by adding him or her to your circles—without that person also having to follow you. It's not a one-to-one friending model like Facebook. In that sense, it's much more like Twitter.
- On the flip side, anyone can add you to his or her circles without your consent; unlike Twitter's "Protect my tweets" option, there's no Google+ setting to require your approval before others can follow you. The onus is on you to choose the right sharing setting for your posts. Even if someone's following you who you'd rather not follow, they'll never see any of your posts as long as you're not posting to the public at large.
So, on the one hand, Google+'s circles are much simpler to set up and use because they form the basis of this social networking model. On the other, it's like a mishmash of other social networks, so it might be confusing at first.
Although anyone can follow you or add you to their circles, the important thing to remember is that the privacy of your posts is always set by you (more on this below). Google+ has many controls for allowing who can see your profile information and also who can see each individual post.
2. Control What People Know About You From Your Profile
Your Google+ profile page links to your background (occupation, education, places lived, etc.), photos and videos shared, and websites you've "+1'ed" from Google search results. So, after setting up your social groups in circles, editing this Google+ profile page is one of the major ways to control your Google+ privacy.
To edit your profile settings, click on the button that looks like a circle with a silhouette in it, then click the "Edit Profile" button.
Here are the default settings for your profile information:
- Full Name: This is the only required part of your profile, and it's visible to all. Changing your name here will change your name across all Google's services.
- Anyone on the web can also see: Your introduction, profile photo, gender, who are in your circles, who you've added to your circles, and the button to send you an email (but not your actual email address).
- Your circles can see your: introduction, employment, education, places lived, relationship status, looking for, links.
- Locked for only you until you change it: your occupation, home and work contact info.
You can change each of these sections to allow viewing by: the whole world (anyone on the web), extended circles, your circles, just you, or a custom grouping. Each privacy group setting has its own icon (see image at left), so when you look at your profile, you can quickly see which parts are shared to which groups.
So, for example, you can set your introduction to be for anyone on the web, your employment to be visible to anyone you've added to your circles, your contact information to be visible to a custom selection of circles such as friends and family, and your relationship status to be only for you and your significant other to see.
Want to check what your profile looks like to someone else? There's a "View profile as..." input field at the top right of your profile where you can check.
Search visibility. If you don't want your profile to be indexed by Google and it to appear in search results, this is the setting to look for. It's at the bottom of your Profile on the About page. Uncheck "Help others find my profile in search results," which is checked by default.
Who's in your circles/Which circles you are in. While you're at it (editing your profile page), you can also change the visibility of the people in your social network. Look to the left column. Under your circles lists, click on the "Change who is visible here" to control who can see all the people you have in your circles (i.e., who you're following) as well as everyone who has you in their circles (who are following you).
Again, by default, everyone on the web can see who you've added to your circles and who has added you to theirs. This, however, is highly customizable.
You have options to make the world think you're only following a select group or groups of people—excluding other groups from their view or hiding all the people you follow, in fact. And you can hide everyone who's added you to their circles, so no one would know how many people or which people are following you.
Profile photos, email, links. The other sections of the profile page are customizable too: your main photo and series of profile photos, that "send an email" link, and your web links. By default, everyone on the web can see these. If this bothers you, here's where you can change it.
Profile photos, shared albums from Picasa, photos of you tagged by other Google+ users, and Instant Upload photos all appear here. You can choose not show this tab (it's displayed by default), but even if your photos tab is displayed, only those photos that you share with others will appear here to them.
A strange setting for "People whose tags of you are automatically approved to link to your Profile" is set by default to be allowed for your circles. This setting just means if someone tags you in a photo and you approve it, the photo will be linked to your profile and added here.
Geo-location is not added by default, nor are photos uploaded by the Instant Upload feature of the Google+ Android app.
This section only has the option to hide or show the tab. You'll need to explicitly share videos here, but the tab is shown by default.
When you like a page or website by clicking on the +1 button in the search results or on the site, it will show up on your profile page if you have this set to be shared by default. (Note: clicking +1 on comments on a post or stream will not show up on this tab. It will only be shown on that thread.) If you don't want people to see your +1's, uncheck this tab (but this begs the question of why you would click any +1 buttons.)
3. Share Only to Select People Using Circles
After organizing people into groups for sharing and adjusting our profile settings, the next major privacy concern is controlling who can see and share the content you post (which can include a photo, web link, video, and/or map/location).
Groups you can share with: When you share content on the service in your "stream," you can select which Circles or individuals will see that content by adding one or more of these groups:
- Public—visible to everyone who has added you to their circles, and shown on your profile page as well
- Extended Circles—everyone in the Public group above, plus everyone in their circles, like friends of friends in Facebook, but also a bit spammy feeling
- a name of one or more of your Circles
- individual names of people on Google+ (this is how you send a direct message to someone on Google+. Just enter their name as the person you are sharing the post with)
Notes about selecting groups you share with:
- Once you've specified your group and posted your content, you can't change the group it's shared with. For example, once you've set it to Public for all your circle contacts, it will be public to everyone you ever add to your circles. From now on, it seems.
- By default when you create a new post, the circles or people you shared with last will be the ones your next post will be shared with by default. This is convenient if you often share with the same groups or individuals, but it's a good idea to check the "share with" settings for each post.
- Sharing with circles is only inclusive, not exclusive. Currently, you can only select specific groups you want to share your content with; you can't set your post to be shared with everyone except for a specific circle or person. This means if you want to be able to post about your rotten workplace, you can't just create a work circle and create a post that excludes that circle; you'll have to create something like "everyone except for work" to share your work horror stories with. Similarly, if I had, for example, Whitson in my Lifehacker circle and wanted to write something about a secret yet also public birthday surprise for him on Google+ and include everyone except him in on the secret, Google+ would not let me do so.
4. Control Your Information Streams and Posts
Besides specifying which circles can view your posts, there are also other post administration tools at your disposal (see the little triangle to the top right of each post you make): If you get trolls on one of your posts, you can remove them individually or report them to Google. You can disable all commenting (e.g., if this is a group thing and you just want to send a notification to your team). And you can disable resharing. These all need to be done manually for each post to protect them.
Incoming streams. Posts from people you've added to your circles will appear in your "stream" under their various circle categories.
For people you haven't added to your circles but who are following you, their posts will be shared with you under the "Incoming" link. You can mute posts you're not interested in seeing there (more trouble than it's worth, probably) or add some of those people to your circles.
Blocking people. If there are too many spammy or offensive or just overwhelming posts from some people, you can block them in your circles settings. "Block" here, however, may not work as you might think. As Hinckley describes it:
"Blocking people hides their posts and comments from your stream, and hides your public posts, but not your comments from their stream. It does not hide either posts or comments when viewed directly on a profile or in the posts themselves.
It actually does more to hide them from you, than it does to hide you from them.
Block does not block. It's a mute button, useful for muting over-sharers."
In other words, don't think of blocking a user as actually protecting your privacy.
Your comments on others' posts are public: Note that your comments on other people's threads, if those threads are shared publicly, are public too and indexed by Google (i.e., searchable). Your +1's of any other people's posts are public too, so that's another thing to be mindful of. An individual post will say "Limited" or "Public" next to the timestamp, so you'll have some idea whether it's shared with a circle or with the public at large.
5. Check Other Obscure Privacy Options and Settings
Click on the Google+ Settings gear icon to get to the full set of settings. Under the main Google+ section, you can set your notification settings for things like when someone mentions you in a post or adds you to a circle. By default you'll be notified by email for everything.
At the bottom you can change the default of anyone being able to start a Huddle (group text) with you. (This can be really annoying, as Adam Pash can tell you.)
Your Profile and Privacy tab links to most of the other settings we've already mentioned. It's a convenient one-stop page to jump to all the settings, perhaps, as well as to your main Google Account information and Google's Privacy Center.
One nice thing you don't have to worry about is data retention and an encrypted connection. Google has confirmed Google+ uses only an encrypted SSL connection and that the data you delete from Google+ is deleted from their servers.
A Wish List
As a new service, Google+ has a lot of promise and Google has been responsive so far to many privacy concerns. The privacy controls for the most part are very straightforward, and Google's continuing to tweak them. For example, recently they changed the chat feature in Google+ so that you need to explicitly invite people for them to appear in your chat list (and Google says they're working on removing the restriction of all users in your chat list having access to your email address).
There are still lots of usability and privacy features we'd like to see added to Google+, as evidenced by the many extensions available for making the most of the service and a recent discussion on Google+ privacy (thanks to everyone who joined in). Some of the things fellow Google+ers most wished for were: the ability to exclude specific circles or individuals from posts, adding subcircles for finer control, viewing multiple circles' streams at once, and an easier way to view comments and replies to comments in Google+.
You've taken a tour of Google+'s privacy settings, but this certainly isn't the end of the discussion. So, please feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments. Photo remixed from an original by Michael D Brown / Shutterstock.