Google Inc. (GOOG) is challenging Facebook Inc. (FB) by using a controversial tactic: requiring people to use the Google+ social network.
The result is that people who create an account to use Gmail, YouTube and other Google services—including the Zagat restaurant-review website—are also being set up with public Google+ pages that can be viewed by anyone online. Google+ is a Facebook rival and one of the company's most important recent initiatives as it tries to snag more online advertising dollars.
The impetus comes from the top. Google Chief Executive Larry Page has sought more aggressive measures to get people to use Google+, two people familiar with the matter say. Google created Google+ in large part to prevent Facebook from dominating the social-networking business.
Both Facebook and Google make the vast bulk of their revenue from selling ads. But Facebook has something Google wants: Facebook can tie people's online activities to their real names, and it also knows who those people's friends are. Marketers say Google has told them that closer integration of Google+ across its many properties will allow Google to obtain this kind of information and target people with more relevant (and therefore, more profitable) ads.
Some users of Google's services are startled to learn how far the integration can reach. Sam Ford, a 26-year-old Navy petty officer, says he signed up for Google+ on his smartphone because it would let him automatically upload new photos to a Google+ folder—one that he kept private. Later, he says, he was surprised to see that his Google+ profile page—which includes his name—was tied to a software review that he wrote recently on the Google Play online store.
Google is "trying too hard to compete with Facebook, and if people aren't going to share willingly, they'll make them share unwillingly," he says.
A Google spokeswoman says the company began requiring use of Google+ profiles to write reviews to improve the quality of the critiques, which was lower when people were able to leave reviews anonymously. The change also allows people to see reviews by their friends, she says.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.
Google executives say more integration is coming. "Google+ is Google," says Vice President Bradley Horowitz. "The entry points to Google+ are many, and the integrations are more every day."
The initiative has been controversial within Google. Some employees viewed it as a desperate attempt to catch up to Facebook while others believe it is the company's best path to being relevant in the age of social media, said people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Page, the CEO, about a year ago first pushed the idea of requiring Google users to sign on to their Google+ accounts simply to view reviews of businesses, the people say. Google executives persuaded him not to pursue that strategy, fearing it would irritate Google search users, the people say. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.
In recent months, Google has pressed ahead with other forms of integration. This past fall, for instance, Google began requiring people who want to post their reviews of restaurants or other businesses to use their Google+ profiles to do so. The same rule applies for reviews of smartphone software "apps," as well as physical goods, obtained through Google.
Vic Gundotra, who is in charge of Google+, says he sees little in-house controversy today. "There was more resistance two years ago," when the project wasn't well understood internally, he says.
The integration has helped increase Google+ usage. Google last month said 235 million people used Google+ features—such as clicking on a "+1" button, similar to Facebook's "Like" button—across Google's sites, up from 150 million in late June.
By using its top websites to help Google+, the company has shown how far it is willing to go to battle Facebook to become a gateway for Internet users to communicate with each other and businesses.
Google is "sitting on a mountain of data," says Alan Osetek, president of Resolution Media, which helps marketers buy ads on Google. He says "click-through rates"—the rates at which Google search users click on ads—have increased for his clients' ads when they include information from Google+, such as the number of people who have recommended a brand by clicking the +1 button on the brand's Google+ page. "In the majority of cases, lift in click-through rates ranged from 2% to 15%," he says.
A person's Google+ profile page typically includes their real name, and they can add other details such as their hometowns. By default, the page is public and will turn up in a Google search. It is possible, however, to change a setting so that the page doesn't show up in search results.
Although Google doesn't reveal a user's name to advertisers, Google uses information about the person's Web visits and interests to help marketers target ads more accurately, Google says. Mr. Gundotra, the Google+ chief, says the company won't share data about individual users with advertisers and that it is important for the company to maintain users' trust.
Google encourages account holders to use Google+ to share photos and thoughts with friends or other Google+ users who share their interests. Integrating Google+ with the rest of the company's properties helps users glean more information about apps, businesses, websites, products and—most important for Google's business—ads for those products. That's because Google+ users can be notified if their Google+ friends or other contacts recommend the items.
"You'll go to search for a camp stove on Google, and you'll find that your friend just bought one, and you'll be able to ask him about it," says Dylan Casey, a former Google+ product manager who now works at Path Inc., a smartphone-based social network.
Since Google+ made its debut in mid-2011, the Mountain View, Calif., company has had limited success getting people to spend time directly on the Google+ site. Research firm comScore Inc. a year ago estimated that Google+ users spent an average of three minutes on the site each month, versus more than 400 minutes for the average Facebook user. In the U.S., Google+ had nearly 28.7 million unique visitors through PCs in October—well below Facebook's 149 million, comScore says. Those numbers don't include mobile-device users.
Because using Google+ requires people to sign in to their Google accounts, Google will be able to blend mounds of data about individual users' search habits and the websites they visit with their activities on Google+. That is a potential boon to Google's ad business, from which the company derives about 95% of its more than $40 billion in annual revenue, excluding its new Motorola phone-making unit.