Google+ Profiles: Just What Gets You Booted?

Jul 25, 2011 (02:07 PM EDT)

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Google+ users who ignored or stretched the rules of the service are getting cut off from the budding social network without warning.

Whether or not this really is a sudden purge, or just a continuation of announced policy, Google's moves are irritating a lot of the service's early fans. Google already has admitted its mistakes in the handling of Google+ business profiles, which are not yet officially supported. While gearing up for the official launch of company profiles, Google has been suspending accounts created with the name of a business rather than an individual crammed into the first name and last name fields.

Now the company seems to be cracking down on accounts registered with fake names or pseudonyms (even though it looks like accounts for Testy Tester and Pseudo Nym are still live). But users are also complaining of accounts that were shut down over the use of a nickname or funny punctuation, such as a nickname or handle included in parentheses.

Aside from arguing for the legitimate uses of anonymity on the web, many users are arguing that the rules are unclear and unevenly enforced. Asked for clarification, a Google spokesperson provided links to a couple of support forum posts and added, "I cannot go into more detail on our processes or policies, and I cannot confirm the removal of individual accounts."

From the published rules and some reading between the lines, here is what we can tell you about the rules and how they are being interpreted:

Use your common, real-life name

The documentation for the Google Profiles feature that is the foundation of Google+ and other Google social media says users must be identified so "you can be certain you're connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they're checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life."

That phrase "in daily life" leaves some room for real life nicknames, and Google+ project head Vic Gundotra noted in a conversation with Robert Scoble that "Vic" is not his own full, legal name. Gundotra also told Scoble that Google is rethinking the policy and ways that it might address some valid complaints, but without abandoning the principle that requiring people to use their real identities is likely to result in more civil discussions and a better community.

One challenge here is that many social media users have become far better known by their online handles and pseudonyms than by their real names. Programmer and former Google employee Kirrily Robert, better known as Skud, believes he was adhering to the letter of Google's law when he signed up for an account under that name--even though he was not surprised when the rule was interpreted differently in practice.

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Also, even though the "daily life" phrase seems to leave room for flexibility, users trying to get their profiles restored have reported being told that they need to provide a government issued ID as proof of their right to use a specific name.

Avoid unusual characters in your name

Including punctuation marks or numbers in your name could raise a red flag. Google doesn't want you to use a title such as Dr. or Prof. in the first or last name field, and even a suffix such as Jr. (with the period) has been reported to cause problems.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak initially set up his profile using Unicode international characters to make it appear he had spelled his name upside-down (Google had him fix this without deleting his account). Google now specifies that you should spell your first and last name "in the same language" meaning also the same character set.

A profile should represent a person, not a group or business

This is the rule that is being enforced to shut down business accounts, but Google also says you shouldn't have a single profile to represent a couple or any other group of people. Google did go public early on with a request to businesses not to create profiles because it wasn't ready for them, but this was widely ignored. Techcrunch blogger MG Siegler briefly established a profile as "Techathew Cruncherin" as a way of protesting the way other businesses were flouting the rules and driving significant traffic to their sites, while Techcrunch had been trying to play by the rules. But the Techcrunch profile was subsequently shut down, along with Mashable's and many other business accounts.

Enforcement is uneven, and it's still easy to find active business profiles like the one for Lyons Toyota, a dealership in Mason City, Iowa. But if you should succeed in attracting significant attention to a business profile, you would also be more likely to attract the attention that will get it shut down.

Suspensions can be appealed

One of the complaints about Google's policy is that accounts are suspended without warning. Once you have received a suspension notice, however, you can file an appeal "to support the claim that you are using a name in compliance with our policy," according to a support forum post by Google+ Community Manager Natalie Villalobos.

Open source hardware maker Limor "Ladyada" Fried was able to get her profile restored after it was shut down over the weekend. It may have been flagged because the profile was at one point published under the name "Adafruit Industries." Celebrity helps: Fried was recently on the cover of Wired.

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