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Fixing the Google Account Problem

By: Drummond Reed

Every so often you experience a technical problem you can’t find any information about and takes forever to solve. Then, after you finally solve it, you’re left scratching your head saying, “I don’t get it – there must be millions of people with this problem, why is there so little information about it?”

The latest example of this revolves around Google accounts, which we need to access many of the services Google offers us. Imagine that a friend shares a document hosted in Google Docs with you. Google then sends you an email message with a link to this document. When you click the link, you’re prompted to log in to your Google account, but once you do, you can’t access the shared document because the email address your friend specified isn’t the email address you used to create your Google account. Maddening!

[Editor’s Note: We’ve run into this problem frequently among the TidBITS staff, since we each have multiple email addresses and the most obvious ones are seldom associated with Google accounts. -Adam]

After much effort, I’ve solved this problem. But throughout the process I was consistently stunned to find almost no information available about it, either from Google or anywhere else.

Warning: Read this article all the way through. The easy fixes are the ones you will likely regret.

The Simple Solution that Will Cause Trouble — There is a simple solution, for which I thank George Fletcher of AOL, who first explained it to me and others on the OpenID mailing list who were having this problem a few years ago. The solution is merely to register a new Google account using the email address that your friend used to share the Google doc with you.

The reason to avoid this solution, to which I can attest by painful personal experience, is that while creating a new account will give you access to all the Google docs shared with you at that address, you will have to log in and out of each different Google account to access the different sets of Google docs available to each account. This might seem like a small pain at first, but believe me, after the 500th time you will be wishing there was a better way. The good news is there is.

The Better Solution… That Still Isn’t the Right Answer — The “better way” is a standard feature of almost any identity or directory system: aliases. (Disclaimer: I’m in the Internet identity business, so this is the kind of stuff I deal with all the time.) In an identity or directory context, an “alias” is just an alternate name for the same account. And in fact Google accounts supports aliases. What’s interesting, though, is that: a) Google doesn’t call them aliases, and b) aliases for Google accounts are completely different from aliases for Gmail accounts.

What’s the difference between a Google account and a Gmail account? Therein lies yet another problem (and possibly the reason why it’s so hard to find good information about either of these problems). Let me start by explaining the difference (as best I understand it).

The first rule is: every Gmail account is a Google account, but NOT every Google account is a Gmail account. In other words, if you have a Google account that is not a Gmail address, then you have a Google account that is not a Gmail account.

The second rule is: Both a Google account and a Gmail address can have an alias. But they are not the same thing, and nowhere is the term “alias” used. I’m not making this up. An alias on a Google account (and remember, every Gmail account is also a Google account) is another name for the entire Google account. But for Gmail, an alias is only an alternate email address that you can send or receive email from using your Gmail account. So, a Gmail alias is not a Google account alias, and a Google account alias is not a Gmail alias – they are completely separate.

Adding an alias to a Gmail account is quite easy, remarkably powerful, and poorly documented. (That likely explains why most people have no idea how much flexibility Gmail offers to manage your email for any number of email accounts.) Here’s how you create a Gmail alias:

  1. Log in to your Gmail account.
  2. Click the Settings link in the top right.
  3. Click the Accounts and Import tab.
  4. In the Send Mail As section, click the “Send mail from another address” button.
  5. Enter your alternate email address as instructed.
  6. Google sends that address an email message with a link you must click to verify that you own the address.
  7. Go to that email account, find the message from Gmail, and click the link.

You’re done. Go back to your Gmail Settings page, click the Accounts and Import tab, and the new email address will be listed in the Send Mail As section. You can now send email from this email address by choosing it in the From drop-down menu in Gmail. (See the help link for more info about the different ways you can send mail from a Gmail alias.) You can apparently add as many email adddresses as aliases to your Gmail account as you want. But keep in mind that all of these will only be Gmail account aliases, not Google account aliases – and having them as Gmail aliases does nothing to solve the Google account problem.

Instead, you must jump through different hoops – with the same set of email addresses – to create Google account aliases. (I have the same four email addresses as both Gmail aliases and Google account aliases.) The following instructions explain how to add an alias to any Google account – whether or not it is a Gmail account – but if your Google account is not a Gmail account, keep reading afterwards to learn why this approach can come back to bite you.

  1. Go to the Google Accounts page. If you’re currently logged into Google, Google figures out which account you’re using via a cookie in your browser. If you’re not logged in, you’re prompted to login, and the Google account you will be configuring is based on the email address you use to login.

  2. Once you are logged in, confirm it is the correct Google account by checking the email address in black text on the left side of the block of links in the top right corner of the page. If it is the right account, proceed. If it is not the right account, meaning you want to add an alias to a different Google account, then log out (upper right corner), then sign back in under the email address for that different Google account.

  3. Under Personal Settings in the top center of the page, the entry at the bottom of the column will be “Email addresses”. If you have not yet added any aliases to this Google account, you will see only one email address – the same email address as at the top of the page. It will have the grey words “Primary email” next to it. This is the “primary key” for this Google account. You can’t change it! See the warning below.

  4. To add an alias, click the Edit link below this email address.

  5. On the next screen, you will see two blocks: “Edit personal information” and “Add an alternate email address to your account.” You want this second block.

  6. At the bottom of this second block is a text box labeled “Add an additional email address.” Enter the email address you want to add as an alias (the one to which your friend shared the Google doc you can’t access) and click Save.

  7. The next screen will tell you that you’ve been sent an email to verify that address.

  8. When you receive the email, click the link in the email.

Congratulations, you have just set up that email address to be an alias for your existing Google account. The benefits? First, it no longer matters which of your two email addresses your friends share a Google doc with. Either way, the Google doc they shared will show up in your Google Docs dashboard. As far as I know, this is true for all the email addresses you add as an alias (again, I don’t know if there is a limit). Second, you no longer have to manage two different Google accounts. All your Google docs appear in your single master account. Hooray!

Now for the final gotcha. You can do all the above and still end out with a royal headache some day because of the rule Google notes when you register an alias as described above: “You can use alternate email addresses to sign in to your Google Account, recover your password, and more. Alternate email addresses can be associated with only one Google Account at a time.”

In other words, for security reasons, you can add an email address as an alias to only a single Google account at a time. On the surface that doesn’t appear to be an issue… until you circle back to what I explained earlier… that every Gmail address is also a Google account. By simple deductive logic, you arrive at the conclusion that you cannot add a Gmail address as an alias to any Google account!

In other words, at Google, all email addresses can serve as primary keys for Google accounts but only non-Gmail accounts can serve as aliases (secondary keys). It boils down to the fact that if you have a Gmail account, or ever plan to get one, then you are forcing yourself into the multiple-Google account problem for life unless you make your Gmail account your primary Google account. That’s the secret. As long as you make your primary Google account a Gmail account, you’ll never have the problem of wanting to use Gmail but finding yourself forced into the multiple-Google account problem.

What To Do If You Already Have the Multiple Google Account Problem — Okay, say you’ve already fallen into this trap. You did what I did several years ago: created your own non-Gmail Google account using a non-Gmail email address so you could access Google docs under that email address. Then later you started using Gmail, and so now you have at least two Google accounts (and maybe more). And people are constantly sharing Google docs with you under one or the other of the two (or more) email addresses, and you are driving yourself nuts logging in and out of Google trying to remember which email address was used to share which Google doc. But you can’t take your non-Gmail email address and make it an alias to your Gmail Google account (as I advise) because your non-Gmail address is already a Google account. How do you fix it?

The answer is completely undocumented (at least I couldn’t find it), and scary as hell. That’s why I’m writing this article. There’s no reason Google needs to make this so hard. Why they haven’t written it up in one of their generally decent Help articles I have no clue. I even wrote one of my identity friends at Google to ask him. His answer was essentially, “This is just too hard for most users to understand.” Well, that may be true, but it’s not a reason to withhold the documentation. The users who are experiencing the problem are highly motivated to understand it, and in fact the solution is pretty easy once you know what it is.

In brief, the way to make a non-Gmail Google account an alias for your Gmail account is to first delete the non-Gmail Google account. Completely. Kaput. Gone. Which, as you might suspect, would ordinarily mean you lose everything associated with that account! Luckily, the workaround is not that hard once you know what it is and you are sure it is going to work. That’s the other reason I’m writing this: I could not find anything posted anywhere – or even get it confirmed by those I knew at Google – that this procedure would work and everything would be okay in the end. But I finally got so tired of the problem that I just did it, and I’m happy to say it works just fine. Please read and follow the instructions below carefully, as I don’t want anyone coming back and telling me that they lost precious data because of my advice that they delete their Google account:

Part One: Share (or Otherwise Back Up) All the Data in the Google Account

  1. First, make sure you have at least one other Google account (preferably a Gmail account-see above-however this procedure should work with any other Google account. In these instructions I’ll assume this other account is a Gmail account.)
  2. Go to the home page of the Google Account you want to delete.
  3. Make sure this the account you want to delete by checking the correct email address in black text at left end of the links at the very top of the page.
  4. Under Personal Settings, click on the Dashboard link (second one down) called “View data stored with this account.”
  5. This helpful utility (created for personal privacy management) will show you all the data you have at Google associated with this account. Now comes the hard part. You need to go through every Google service on this list, then go through any associated documents or data files for each of those services, and share them with your Gmail account. Even more importantly, if you are the owner any document/file, then transfer ownership to your Gmail account. If you don’t own a document/file (someone else shared it with you), don’t worry, you can’t lose it when you delete this Google account. But, as long as you have Edit privileges on the document/file, share it with your Gmail account just so you don’t have to go back to the original owner and ask them to reshare it later. If whoever shared it with you didn’t give you edit privileges, just contact them and have them share it again with your Gmail account.
  6. Did I say do this for every document/file in every Google service you use? Go back to your Personal Dashboard and check it again.
  7. IMPORTANT: as a final check, log in to your Gmail account and verify that all the docs are shared. If you own the document/file, verify that your Gmail account is the new owner.
  8. Check everything one more time. If you are unsure than anything has been shared and will not go “poof” when you delete this Google account, just download a copy to your local hard drive (or email it to your Gmail account). Like I said, never come back to me and say you lost any Google data because of this blog post.

Part Two: Delete the Google Account

  1. Go back to the home page for the Google account you want to delete.
  2. Make sure this is the right Google account by confirming the email address in black at left end of the links at the very top of the page.
  3. Next to the My Products header (the second horizontal section down the page), click the Edit link.
  4. The second option on the page is to Delete Account. Choose that option and follow the instructions to confirm you want to permanently delete this account (and wipe that sweat off your brow). Seriously, if you’ve shared or backed up all the files associated with this account, you’ve nothing to fear. It’s just like reformatting a hard drive .

Once you’re done, take a deep breath. Wait 15 minutes. (I don’t know if you actually have to wait this long, but I figured it’s long enough to wait for Google’s servers to go through all their account deletion machinations.)

Part Three: Add the Alias to Your Primary Google Account

  1. Log back in to your Gmail account (or whichever Google account you want to make your primary).
  2. Follow the instructions earlier in this blog post to add the email address (for the Google account you just deleted) as an alias to this Google account.
  3. Once Google confirms it as an alias, you’re done. Problem solved.

Why It’s Still Not Perfect: A Final Warning — It’s worth pointing out that privacy, not just security, can be an issue with account aliases. Sometimes you don’t want someone to know you are using Gmail address to do all this cool stuff. But if your Gmail account is your primary Google account (as I advise), then take note of the fact that in some Google services, if you share your alternate email address with your contacts, they might be able to learn your primary email address. In short, Google hasn’t fully figured out yet how to provide you with completely separate personas on the Web. In my personal opinion, they would be well-advised to do so. It’s not easy – in fact this level of privacy can be as hard as the corresponding levels of security. But Google has the talent and, I believe, the motivations to attain this goal. I hope they consider it soon.

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