As a social network, Google+ is just a bunch of empty circles spinning in a barren wasteland. But Google could give a fuck if consumers prefer Facebook. What the $400 billion data vacuum really wanted, reports The New York Times, is to track everything you do online and sell that personal information to advertisers.

No shock there. Critics saw this coming as far back as 2011 when Google+ started forcing profiles to use their real names and Google+ suddenly became your sign-in for other Google services. But the company finally confessed their long con to the Times, albeit with a corporate spin:

"Google Plus gives you the opportunity to be yourself, and gives Google that common understanding of who you are," said Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management for Google Plus.

Since it launched, the type of data Google+ collects has become even more valuable—and Google is getting better at collecting it than Facebook, reports the Times:

The reason is that once you sign up for Plus, it becomes your account for all Google products, from Gmail to YouTube to maps, so Google sees who you are and what you do across its services, even if you never once return to the social network itself [...]

Thanks to Plus, Google knows about people's friendships on Gmail, the places they go on maps and how they spend their time on the more than two million websites in Google's ad network. And it is gathering this information even though relatively few people use Plus as their social network.

Now that search advertising, the primary source of Google's profits, has slowed, the company has gotten more aggro about tracking what you do online, says the Times:

Plus is now so important to Google that the company requires people to sign up to use some Google services, like commenting on YouTube. The push is being done so forcefully that it has alienated some users and raised privacy and antitrust concerns, including at the Federal Trade Commission. Larry Page, Google's chief executive, tied employee bonuses companywide to its success and appointed Vic Gundotra, a senior Google executive, to lead it. [...]

The way Google is tying its search engine, which dominates the market, with a less popular product in Plus has set off antitrust concerns. The Federal Trade Commission raised the issue during its recent antitrust investigation of Google, according to two people briefed on the matter. That investigation closed without a finding of wrongdoing.

(Anti-trust investigations in the EU weren't as easy to wriggle out of. Google just published the details of its settlement.)

But it's not just consumers that are getting suckered into Google+. The Times says brands are being lured into starting a G+ account because Google promises them "prime placement on the right-hand side of search results, with photos and promotional posts," the kind of advertising you'd normally have to pay for. Not only that, but brands are compelled to join Google+ in order to show up higher in Google's search results.

The Economist has more fans on Google Plus than on Facebook — six million versus three million — and its journalists use Plus features like Hangouts. Yet Chandra Magee, The Economist's senior director of audience development, emphasized the value of Plus as a search engine optimization tool.

"There is potential there to help us get in front of new audiences," she said. "But it also helps with our S.E.O. strategy because our posts on Google Plus actually show up in our search engine results."

This is the Silicon Valley equivalent of having your cake, eating it too, then licking everyone else's slice.

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