Fixing the Google Account problem

Every so often you experience a technical problem you can’t find any information about and which takes you forever to solve. Then, after you finally solve it, you are 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?”

Once before, back in 1991, I ran into such a problem with Windows 3.0. After finally solving it, I shared my solution with my friend Seattle Times tech columnist Paul Andrews. He published it in his column, and it turned out that thousands of people had the same problem but nobody understood quite what was happening. So that’s why there was so little information about it.

Now 20 years later, even though we’ve got the Internet and Google and all, I’ve just been through the same experience. And the irony? The problem is with none other than Google accounts—the very accounts that we need from this search giant to access many of the services it offers.

Over the holidays I finally bore down, worked the problem all the way through, and solved it. And throughout the process I was consistently stunned to find so little information available about it, either from Google or anywhere else.

So this time around I’m being proactive about it and publishing the solution right here so it will be easy for anyone to reference. (And, of course, for Google’s own search engine to find — the Internet brings new heights to irony.)

Warning: read this all the way through. The easy fixes are also the ones you may live to regret.

The Problem

  1. A friend shares a Google doc with you.
  2. You receive an email containing a link to this Google doc.
  3. When you click on the link, you are prompted to log into your Google account, but once you do, you can’t get access to the doc because the email address that the friend used is not the same email address you used to originally create your Google account.

Arrggh! (That’s an exact quote from an email I just received from a friend for whom I’m solving this problem by writing this blog post!)

The Simple Solution That Will Get You In 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: register a new Google account under the email address that your friend used to share the Google doc with you.

It’s very easy…BUT…read the warning afterwards as to why it’s a red herring.

  1. Go to http://google.com.
  2. If you are signed in, sign out (top right corner).
  3. On the next screen (the plain jane Google home screen), click the Sign in link in the top right corner.
  4. On that screen, underneath the login box on the right, click the link “Don’t have a Google account? Create an account now”.
  5. Even though you may already have a Google account, enter the email address you want to register for another Google account (the one your friend sent the Google doc too).
  6. Confirm the email address via the standard process.
  7. When you are done, log in using to this new Google account (using the email address you just registered, not the one for your other Google account).
  8. Go to Google Docs (http://docs.google.com).
  9. The Google Doc your friend shared with you will be on the list.

Yes, it’s that simple. BUT…

The New Problem This Creates

The reason NOT to solve the problem this way, to which I can attest by long and painful experience, is that while you will now have access to all the Google docs shared with you…you will also have to log in and log back out of each of your different Google accounts in order to access the different sets of Google docs shared with you under your different email addresses.

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.

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) they don’t call them “aliases”, and b) aliases for Google accounts are completely different than aliases for Gmail accounts.

Gmail accounts, you ask? What’s the difference between a Google account and a Gmail account?

Therein lies a whole ‘nother can of worms (and possibly the reason there is so little information about the Google account problem).

Let me start by explaining the difference (as best I understand it – this WHOLE BLOG POST is an open invitation for the good folks at Google to correct any of my misunderstandings and provide better explanations).

First, a Google account and a Gmail account are not exactly the same thing. 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 NEITHER CALLS THEM ALIASES.

I am 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. A GMAIL ALIAS IS NOT A GOOGLE ACCOUNT ALIAS. A GOOGLE ACCOUNT ALIAS IS NOT A GMAIL ALIAS.

Is that clear as mud?

Now, adding an alias to a Gmail account is quite easy, remarkably powerful (most people have no idea how much flexibility Gmail offers to manage your email for any number of email accounts), and surprisingly poorly documented. I just spent 10 minutes searching Gmail for help on this just to see if there was a Gmail help page I could just link to.

Nope.

So here’s how.

Instructions for Adding an Alias to Your Gmail Account (but NOT for your Google Account Even If It Is a Gmail Account!)

  1. Login to your Gmail account.
  2. Click the Settings link in the top right.
  3. Click the Accounts and Import tab.
  4. In the second section, Send mail as, click the button labelled, Send mail from another address.
  5. Enter the email address as instructed.
  6. Google will send you an email with a link you must click to verify you own the address.
  7. Go to that mail account, find the mail, click the link (it all takes about 30 seconds).

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 box in Gmail. (See the help link for more info about the different ways you can send mail from a Gmail alias.)

You can add as many email adddresses as aliases to your Gmail account as you want (at least I couldn’t find documentation about a limit). 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.

So you have to go through a different process — even with the same set of email addresses — to make them Google account aliases. (For example, I have the same four email addresses as BOTH Gmail aliases and Google account aliases.)

The following instructions apply for adding an alias to ANY Google account (whether or not it is a Gmail account), BUT—and this is a big BUT—if your Google account is NOT a Gmail account, keep reading afterwards about why this can come back to bite you.

Instructions for Adding an Alias to Any Google Account (Even If It Is a Gmail Account)

  1. Go to www.google.com/accounts. That is the home page for configuring any Google account. If you’re currently logged into Google, Google figures out which Google account you are using via a cookie in your browser. If you’re not logged in, they’ll prompt you 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 at the very top of the page (on the left side of the block of links in the top right corner). If this is the right account, proceed. If this is not the right account, meaning you want to add an alias to a different Google account, then sign 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 (do you see the word “alias” anywhere near here? Or anywhere on this screen? Does Google give you any clue that this is where you should go to access such a feature??), click the Edit link below this email address.
  5. On the next screen (https://www.google.com/accounts/EditUserInfo), 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?

  1. 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 at http://docs.google.com. 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).
  2. You no longer have to log in and out of two different Google accounts. All your Google docs will be there in your one master account. Hooray!

Now for the final gotcha. You can do all the above and still end out with a royal headache one day because of the following rule Google explains 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 only be associated with one Google Account at a time.

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

You cannot add a Gmail address as an alias to ANY Google account!

In other words, at Google, all email addresses can all serve as primary keys for Google accounts BUT only only non-Gmail accounts can serve as an alias (a secondary key).

So it boils down to this: if 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.

Yup, 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: a) completely undocumented (at least I couldn’t find it), and b) scary as hell.

That’s why I’m writing this blog post. 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 IMHO 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.

It’s just scary.

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.

How’s that for a scary thought? Honestly, that’s why I held off fixing this for so long. Who wants to bother with working around that?

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 blog post: 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.

So: please read and follow the instructions below carefully. 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 Backup) 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 at  https://www.google.com/accounts/ManageAccount.
  3. Make sure this is 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 whomever 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 into 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: https://www.google.com/accounts/ManageAccount.
  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. This should take you to https://www.google.com/accounts/EditServices.
  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 <ouch>.

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 following warning:

Note: 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 — acheiving this level of privacy can be as hard as acheiving corresponding levels of security. But Google has the talent and, I believe, the motivation to attain this goal. I hope they consider it soon.

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About Drummond Reed

Internet entrepreneur in identity, personal data, and trust frameworks
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59 Responses to Fixing the Google Account problem

  1. Works nicely for accounts that haven’t got any ‘content’ associated with them. I had a stray account that I think I’d used with Google Checkout quite a while ago. Now I’ve made it an alias of my gmail account all is fine and dandy. Thanks

  2. Thanks for this elaborate post. I fortunately don’t have this problem (anymore, fixed it a long time ago in a similar fashion) but this definately will help a lot of people. It also gives good insight in the strange way Google actually manages (or not manages) identity. I’ld like to hear your opinion on how you think Google should actually sort this out. Different scenario’s have different problems.

    Wouldn’t it be just a better option to allow users to merge accounts: login on both accounts sequentially, press the merge button, select a few ‘are you sure buttons’ and then actually run through a merge script that shows you the conflicts you might want to resolve.

    This is in fact a problem that happens on multiple sites. I have seen a lot of discussions on LinkedIN from people with two or more accounts because they were invited on e-mail addresses they didn’t add to their account yet.

    Another question is this: If you happen to have established an Orkut profile with your Google account and you destroy that, you may also destroy all relationships (virtually that is) with the people you connected to. This can’t simply be ‘migrated’. You’ld have to ‘reconnect’ and that’s a hassle. This is in fact what makes the LinkedIN problem I mentioned earlier quite nasty, since you don’t want to bother those you’re connected to with your petty little technical problems…

    I guess a ‘consequenses of dropping your Google Account’ post might be in order here….

    Cheers

    Willem Kossen

    • Willem,

      I think the solution you suggest for how this SHOULD work is right on. That solution would also address the Orkut/social network migration problem. But my post was already 3000+ words so I didn’t want to make it even longer.

      IMHO, I believe one of the fundamental issues is using email addresses as account identifiers. They were never designed for that purpose, and mixing up functional identifiers with pure “account identifiers” is fraught with problems. But for usability purposes I don’t blame Google or anyone else for using them – it’s simply the best option they have so far.

      The long-term solution to this problem – that will work across all sites that adopt it – is something I’ll be blogging more about later this spring.

      =Drummond

      • Early this year, I noticed an option to connect my Orkut account to my Google Plus account. One caveat may be that I created my Orkut account with my Gmail address. Granted, Google Plus is a replacement for Google Profiles and more, but Orkut still has features not available with Google Plus. There is also an option to connect Orkut Communities with Google Communities; the catch is that the Google Community cannot be private.

        Also, one of the first things I do when I create an account at a website (if possible), is to add other email addresses to that account. I do use a pseudonym with a separate email address just for fun that I use to sign up for questionable websites. This avoids the issue of having your mother or boss find that off-color joke or risqué picture that you shared associated with your name or email address.

  3. Dave Cross says:

    I investigated this a year or so ago and came to much the same conclusions that you did:

    http://blog.dave.org.uk/2008/11/combining-google-accounts.html

    However, there seems to be one last gotcha hidden in your advice. I haven’t yet found a way to share Google Adsense data from the account I’m going to close to my main Adsense account. It seems that the only option is to close the old Adsense account and open a new one.

    This gives me a couple of problems. Firstly I would need to close the old account at exactly the right time (to avoid leaving some residual earnings in the account) and secondly I would lose all the historical data associated with the old account.

    Currently I’m keeping the old account open, but associated with a relatively unimportant email address. But I’d love to know if anyone has a better solution.

  4. Wait untilyou add Google Apps into the mix – that’s a whole ‘nother headache.

  5. =Bill.Barnhill says:

    Great article Drummond, as usual. Btw, I found this on Hacker News. Now we just need to get Google to adopt XRIs.

  6. Mark says:

    “In other words, if you have a Google account that is NOT a Gmail address, then you have a Google account is NOT a Gmail account.”

    Parse error. What?

  7. Mark Jaquith says:

    This post is epic, and makes understandable what had previously been a mysterious web of logins and identities. Thanks!

  8. Luke Francl says:

    Wow. Nice write up.

    I have a similar but different problem.

    I registered a non-Gmail address as a google account and used it happily for Google Docs. I have a ton of documents shared with this Google account.

    Then, Google released Google Apps for Your Domain. I signed up (using the same email address as above). Now, when someone shares a document with me, it goes to THIS address (which I like). However, all my OLD documents are shared with my other Google Account.

    Since the address is the same, I cannot share my documents with my new account.

    Supposedly Google has built a transfer feature to allow people to move documents from one Google Account to another, but I don’t see this option.

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Google+Docs/thread?tid=65ae2ebab7b8c859&hl=en

  9. Apreche says:

    You think this is bad? You know what’s worse? I have accounts at Google apps (formerly Google Apps for Your Domain aka GAFYD). That account has its own mail, docs, chat, sites, calendar, but it doesn’t have reader, analytics, feedburner, or any other Google service. The result is that I have one Google Apps account and two google/gmail accounts that are all mixed up with no way to fix them.

  10. Thank you for this great guide for aliases for Gmail/Google. I am sad to say that I’m pretty sure I ran into the trap, as I want to connect my Google (Groups) account to another Google account, but I am unable to do so because you can’t have a Google account as an alias.

    When I get time, I would really like to try your solution, but, I hope that Google catches wind of this and attempts to put together better documentation or a better method for connection/aliasing accounts. I like to keep a professional and personal gmail, but have everything funneled to the personal inbox. That works for email, but other services don’t work like that, like Groups.

    Thanks again!

  11. Nice work. If you’re up for another related challenge, I’ve got one for you:

    I got a grand central account before it becake google voice, and tied it to my main gmail/google account afterward. I never really used it much.

    Then I moved to a different area code. I wanted to keep my cellphone number and also have a local number, so that both would ring my cellphone. This was before google introduced the “pay $5 to change your number” thing.

    So I created a new gmail/google account and got a new google voice number. In order to get the old google voice account to let go of my cell phone number, I set it to my wife’s number and turned on “do not disturb”.

    Now, I want to combine the two. I want my old gmail address and my new google voice number on the same account. Can you find any way to combine these?

  12. (I’m actually using the new google voice number + it ends in 1337, so I’d rather not loose it.)

  13. Joe Andrieu says:

    Nice. I have this problem! But I don’t know that it is worth it to deal with the effort to merge it.

    One suggestion: explicitly mention that you also have to transfer all membership in any Google Groups you might have in the ‘other account’. Since you may not control access to those groups, this may require contacting all the owners of said groups… and is precisely why I’m not bothering with the fix.

    Fortunately, I mostly read my Groups in my email in box, so the Groups interface is just for configuration management.

    Still… it’s annoying.

    Google!?! Why not have a “merge accounts” feature?!?

  14. Just to add confusion to your already great set of instructions, there is a third option that will totally and utterly confuse your readers. You might have a non-google Google account.
    I know that sounds strange, but if you signed up for a google account with a non-gmail address you have a google account that is valid for all google services.
    If you however use the new Google Apps for Domains, just like I do, which gives me GMail like functionality for my personal domains, then you have a google account that doesn’t work for all google services because it’s not truely a google account.
    Examples here are things like Google Groups and Google Reader. I cannot login to Google Reader for domains. But in a stunning level of confusion, I do have an alias for my GMail Google account that is the same email address as my Apps for Domains account, but actually references another account. (yes seriously that is possible).

    That means that when I am confronted with a Google login box, and I type in michael@brunton-spall.co.uk I’m not sure whether I’m actually logging in with my gmail account associated with that, or my Apps for domains account. The fun never ends!

    Thanks for the post it was informative.

  15. Kevin Marks says:

    There’s another case – if you sign up with a non-google email address, and later switch hosting of that email address to Google Apps For Your Domain, you can have 2 separate Google accounts with the same email address.
    No idea how to disentangle that one.

  16. Julian Tosh says:

    Completely awesome writeup. Thanks so much for this!

  17. Fergal Butler says:

    I believe that it’s actually even more confusing than what you’ve alluded to in the this blog post.

    What you are referring to as “Gmail aliases” are not actually what would normally be understood as aliases in relation to email. They are verified alternative email addresses (alternative identities) that you have associated with the Gmail account, and not true aliases as one would normally understand the term ‘alias’ when referring to email.

    In Google apps there are actually true email aliases termed ‘nicknames’ by Google. These are alternate email addresses for the Google apps account within the same domain that the Google apps account is set up in. These can be added to a Google Apps account using the Google apps provisioning API and function as further SMTP recipient email addresses for the Google apps account.

    The “Send As” email addresses are not true email aliases, although a Google apps nickname can also be used as a “Send As” address. The “Send As” addresses are not really aliases at all. Rather they are totally separate identities which are associated with the email account identity. In setting up a “Send As” address the email confirmation verification process provides the necessary confirmation to link the “Send As” identity to the Google email account identity.

    Once these identities have been linked by the verification process, Google then knows that the “Send As” email address identity is linked to the Google email account identity and therefore shows documents sent to the “Send As” address as associated with the Google email account identity.

    • Fergal Butler says:

      In the last paragraph in my reply I should have clarified that this is the behaviour if the “Send As” address is a Google email address, and is therefore known on the Google platform.

  18. Caleb says:

    Thank you for this post. I too have problems with Google Apps/Gmail. Unfortunetly the fix won’t work for me as the Gmail account(that I don’t want) has become my primary identity for my Adwords, Adsense, Reader, ect, ect. It’s removal would not surrender these accounts to my secondary non-gmail accounts. For the record, I never wanted my Gmail account to be the primary Google Acount, and I did not sign up for any of the Google services with a Gmail address.
    I appreciate the free services that Google offers, but would like to start a Facebook/Twitter campaign to speed their repair of this problem.
    Thanks again for this post,
    Caleb

  19. Robin Wilton says:

    Good work, Drummond… It’s tough to reverse-engineer a “design” which is as kludgy as that ;^)

    In retrospect, then, it looks to me like the fundamental problem is that there are (at least) two things here which are acting as account-level entities – gmail addresses and Google accounts – and the relationships between them are neither symmetric nor consistent.

    As the design level, I’d venture to suggest that what’s needed is a further level of abstraction, defining a third “thing” with which multiple Google accounts and gmail addresses could be associated. (Plus, then, the other various Google-acquired/re-branded services/accounts which other commenters have mentioned).

  20. Robin Wilton says:

    Then, of course, there’s the further and more insidious privacy problem that, if the reason you had multiple Gmail accounts is so as to maintain some kind of separation between different online personas, that ability is undermined in two ways by the constraints of the current design and implementation:

    1 – it’s just too complicated to manage coherently. You can’t get an accurate picture, from Google as the service provider, of your full set of accounts and addresses, and the relationships between them;

    2 – as you say, people’s first quick fix to the problem is usually either to set up another email address, or disclose an existing address in order to get access to the Google doc someone is trying to share with them… Once you’ve made that disclosure or created that linked address, you can’t “un-do” it.

  21. Bill Burcham says:

    That third “thing” that multiple accounts might be associated with is a person @Robin Wilton. A person can have multiple identities. This works well now for email (even in Gmail). It breaks down horribly between Gmail, Google Groups and Google Apps um and Google Apps for Education.

    This problem is hard. But I think in Google’s case the current issue is less a reflection of inherent difficulty and more a result of organizational silos (at Google.)

  22. Thanks for this great article.

    I’d also like to point out that this problem gets even worse when you’re using aliased domain registered to Google Apps.

    1. Google now rejects registration of Apps account (due to Gmail/Apps account merge).
    2. Google Accounts authentication with Google Apps account does not allow account with aliased domain.

    with 1+2, I’m now locked out from all existing services that involves Google Accounts authentication.

  23. Ethan says:

    Have there been any improvements in this area. With the introduction of G+ I see this being a problem for more people.

    • Ethan, yes, in fact, Google has added some internal account switching features that address some of what this post covered. However these still do not work with Google Apps, unfortunately. And the advice about having just one master account still holds. It’s a hard problem. (And now Google’s “Real Names” policy has introduced another issue that makes it worse in a different way). Best, =Drummond

  24. …and what about merging two _gmail_ accounts, or at least using one as an alias for the other?
    that one seems completely impossible for me.

    my situation is: I have a gmail account with a lightly ridiculous nickname (set up back in high school), and I got tired of people asking about it. therefore, I’ve set up another gmail account with my real name, set it to forward all mail to my primary one and to be a valid “Send as” address.
    now I can use the new one for correspondence, but the docs shares (etc) aren’t transferred to my primary account of course…

    • I agree that Google doesn’t seem to have anticipated the need for Gmail users to be able to alias accounts. I can see historically the reasons for this — they didn’t want to encourage users to have more than one Gmail account — but now that Google accounts have turned into a full-on identity system (and not just for Google), they really need to accommodate this. In my view, any Internet-scale identity system needs to have full support for: a) account aliasing, b) persistent, non-recyclable identifiers, and c) persona management. (That’s another blog post I hope to get to soon.)

  25. pat says:

    I signed my daughter up for a gmail address, instead of a new account, it changed MY account mailbox to the new gmail a/c and my old mailbox as the secondary email. now i can’t switch the old email back to my primary address. (It is not a gmail address and thats how i want it)

    now my email is attached to her’s. please tell me how i can separate the one old a/c or get rid of the gmail address and get back my old primary email address. i would prefer if i didnt have to kill the new address but i CAN’T kill the old non gmail address.

    can you help?

    • Wow, Pat, I wish I could help but one reason I wrote that long blog post is that Google accounts can be so difficult to work with. I believe that to get what’s now your secondary email back as your primary you are going to need to delete the new Gmail address you registered from your account. Then the other Gmail address should return to become your primary Gmail address.

      If you do that, then you should be able to register the new Gmail address again — only this time make sure to do it from another computer that is NOT logged in to Gmail.

      Hope this helps.

  26. Val says:

    I once set up a google account with an on-line alias so my real name wouldn’t be used when I commented on the web (I used my telus email account to set it up). But then my husband set up a gmail account using my real name so my phone could link to my google calendar. Problem is, now my google account is my real name and my little alias has dissappeared, so I don’t comment anywhere anymore. This is the ‘alias’ I wish I could get back – the one I want to show up when I post a revew on the web. So…., if I delete my gmail account and create a new one with an alias name (one that sounds real), do you think that would solve the problem? Doesn’t google frown on this now?

    • Consuela says:

      Similar problem. I had a Blogger account so I could comment on things without giving my real name. I don’t recall using my gmail address to sign up for it (it was a LONG time ago!), but somehow I seem to now have a Blogger blog linked to my gmail (or google account – not sure which, probably both). Of course there is no option in Blogger to change my name. When I go to my google account settings, I have a nickname listed under my name (the same one I use for public things like commenting on blog posts), but when I make a post, it shows my real name. Does anyone know how to fix this?

  27. Jen says:

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this post! I was beating my head against a wall, trying to figure out how to look at a Google doc that somebody at my new job shared with me. I added my new work e-mail address as an alias, and VOILA! Success.

  28. Mad at Google says:

    Google seems one of the most terrible domains I should have ever known! Why, the Google Accounts page just doesn’t work, not least on mobile! Despite having tried for all is worth to get past the tiresome errors that have always appeared everytime I have tried to set up a google account for the first time, it’s been no good. While using a Nokia S40 phone, I even enabled proxy on it. Yet, after having filled out all the fields for Google Accounts, I have always found either the page to refresh altogether just when the last or the last but one field is left to be filled out, or an error to come up as “Sorry, we cannot serve your request for a new account at this moment” on clicking the “Next step” tab. What the hell is wrong with google? Why doesn’t it let you have an account? Who would wanna stay with Google if that was how it behaved? As if that isn’t enough, YouTube always redirects me to Google Accounts in order for me to get an account with it [YouTube, that is]. That seems the prerequisite for an account with YouTube. All I’d like is a quick fix to this bug and I should be highly grateful if anyone out here could help me out on i_shall_say_the_word@yahoo.com.

  29. Richard says:

    I have been trying to get signed in, because I like Goggle, also I wanted Facebook. No luck signing in. Can you please help. Also can’t get a current Flash Drive. Need help.

  30. Indrek Pringi says:

    I have a related problem with google that will keep you busy for months if you want to solve it.
    I have a google account: and a gmail account
    BUT… my gmail account has a different username and passwords than my google account.
    Since I installed the gmail account only to access Craigslist: I configured the account to automatically send all the Craigslist e-mails to my Outlook Express (I have windows XP) and forgot about it until my computer crashed and I had to use my backup computer which wasn’t configured to receive the gmail account e-mails from Craigslist… By then after 2 years I had forgotten what the password for my gmail account was. When I tried to access my gmail account I discovered that google doesn’t recognize different g-mail and google accounts when they come from the same e-mail address. I can access my google password but I can’t reset my gmail password because google doesn’t have a gmail reset for its passwords: it only has a reset for its google accounts: and when you have two different passwords for your google and gmail and if you forgot the gmail password: you can’t access your gmail. This is because in order to access gmail you have to go through google accounts first, so they send you the google password reset: not the gmail password reset because their system doesn’t hold two different accounts on one e-mail address. The same basic flaw as you found is now screwing me too, only in a different way. I bet you can’t figure out how to solve this: If you do, let me know and I will send you the best bagels ever.

    • I wish I could help because I understand the problem and how frustrating it must be. But it sounds like a Google system flaw that, until they fix it, we can’t do anything about. Sorry.

  31. Patricia43 says:

    I have a problem similar but perhaps not the same. I am attempting to help a less technical friend but I am at a loss to get around this.
    My friend has a google account created a couple of years ago. She does not have a gmail account yet I can sign onto her google account using xxx@gmail.com and it comes up with a google account with her primary email (non-gmail) address.
    It will not allow me to use her (non-existant) gmail address since it claims it already exists.
    Is it possible to resolve this? I’d be happy to delete the google account if that would work but it is not clear from this thread that it would help.

    • It’s been several years since I wrote the blog post (and yet it still appears high in Google’s search results), so I can’t give you a definitive answer to your question. The fact that you can sign into Google using what looks like a gmail address without it actually being a gmail address baffles me. The only answer that makes sense is that she somehow set up the non-Google email account to have an alias to the gmail address even if the latter was non-functional.

      Have you checked to see if she has any alises set up in her Google account? If so, you might try deleting those aliases (but NOT deleting the entire Google account) to see if it frees up that address to become a true gmail address. (Give it 30 minutes or so after you delete the alias to try to register it as a new Gmail address.)

      If that doesn’t work, or if she doesn’t have an aliases registered to her existing Google account, I’m stumped.

      In either case, I would NOT try deleting the Google account until you’ve figured this out.

      Hope this helps.

    • Alvin says:

      I have exactly the same problem as Patricia..
      I have a xxx@gmail.com username with no Gmail which when I log into displays my current email account xxx@yahoo.com. Caused I believe when I created a Picasa account using my yahoo account as my email account.
      The huge problem… I want to add Gmail however it tells me that my username is already taken. .. which it is … by me :-(.
      Any ideas how to unravel this? As I don’t want to have another username for Gmail.. or does the alias feature offer a reasonable workaround?
      Thanks!

      • I think you nailed the analysis, i.e., you had an email account from another provider for which Google automatically created an alias at gmail.com even though you don’t actually have that account. And now they won’t let you turn it into a functional gmail account.

        I honestly don’t know whether, if you created a new gmail account under a different address, whether Google would let you set up the other “pseudo-gmail” account as an alias. If you could, that would solve the problem, however when I last tried it, Google will not let any gmail account be an alias for another gmail account. Only non-gmail accounts can be aliases.

        So you may be stuck. Hopefully Google will figure out the problem they’ve created and let pseudo-gmail account holders turn that account into a real gmail account. How long that will take, I can’t predict.

      • Alvin says:

        Thanks Drummond! If it weren’t for you sharing your insights I’d think I were blazing mad!!! :-S
        I’ve posted the same note on the Gmail forum however there wasn’t anything substantive.
        I was wondering though – how does one log a issue to the Google engineering team responsible? It amazed me to find that support is on “auto-pilot” i.e.: no humans involved… ;-). You can log issues on the Google Gmail forum but that doesn’t appear to be moderated. So I’m wondering how bugs etc get to the engineering teams.
        Thank you for the help!

      • Alvin, I’ve often wondered exactly the same thing. I know lots of folks and Google and they all avoid that same question. So I honestly don’t know how one brings issues like these to Google’s attention.

  32. Consuela says:

    Not sure if this will help anyone, but if you linked your old youtube account to your gmail or google account and would rather not have it linked, you can unlink it from that google account and link it to another google account or ceate a new google account for it. http://www.youtube.com/my_account_unlink I just did this and noticed the following: all my subsrciptions’ activity still showed up in the newsfeed thingy, but if I try to Manage my subscriptions, it says I have none. I had to add them all back for them to show up on the left side. Another glitch is that I tried uploading a video to test out the video upload email address and my phone’s youtube app. It all worked fine, but the email confirmation telling me that my video was successfully uploaded went to… you guessed it… the old gmail account, NOT the new one. Sigh.

  33. IcyAll says:

    Consuela’s message above may help me, but … I helped a friend by creating a gmail account for her, then gave her the information and put her name in and email address for backup and created a password she could remember (she’s elderly) — that worked great. But I already had a YouTube and blogspot presence and google co-opted her address and put it as the topmost account on both my accounts. And I cannot figure out how to unlink them. It’s very embarrassing because even though she is not deft online, every time I wanted to do a blog post or a YouTube upload, she would get an email notifying her — things that have nothing to do with her. I stopped uploading, stopped blogging. I cannot find any solution, your blog above is the closest to someone expressing the frustration of the bad, bad HELP menu at google. They just don’t care. They’re too monstrously large and profitable to care. And that SUCKS.

  34. cache problem
    03.08.2013
    NOTE: (It’s a newly formatted system and newly software installed system including Google chrome)
    On 2.3.13 When I tried to login in to my Gmail account in my office using Google chrome browser .The browser fetches username and passwords which are used in it previously. It comes from cache.
    Now that’s not a problem…But there is a new Username and password comes in that login through cache. I am the one who uses that system’s browser to access my Gmail account (both personal & official acc).
    So, I got some doubts and logged into that unknown mail id using the username and password which appeared in my Google login page because of that cache data.
    After getting logged in, I found that the unknown contact is having a contact of my brother. So, I have a doubt that
    HOW THAT GMAIL ACCOUNT APPEARS IN MY OFFICE SYSTEM?
    On 3.8.13 Then, I used Google chrome password recovery tool to get that password of that unknown user.
    In that event time, it also fetched four items from cache data. They are,
    1. My personal username and password.
    2. My official username and password.
    3. Unknown username and password.
    4. Strange one: My brothers face book id‘s username and password.
    Note: In my office am not allowed to get into face book and the site is blocked too. So my doubt is,
    1. How unknown username and password came from cache at my office?
    2. How the Google password recovery tool fetched my brother’s face book username and password?
    Possibility: In the month of May, I used my brother’s laptop to login into my Gmail and face book account and also searched something in Google.
    Now, I can see my last may month activities in that unknown mail’s Google dashboard. So, by this I came to know that this unknown account is my brother’s account. So,
    1. How that unknown account (past account of my brother which he used in his own laptop in the month of May)’s username and password came to my system in my office.
    I used my brother’s laptop in his house at Aruppukottai, Virudhunagar District, Tamilnadu.
    My office is in WTC, Yeswanthpur, Bangalore.

    • Deepak, I wrote that blog post several years ago and many people still refer to it but much has changed in the meantime. Your problem sounds like it is much more related to a Chrome cache problem. I wish I could help but that’s not my speciality. Good luck. =Drummond

  35. Eric Guay says:

    What about business accounts in Gmail? Users on a business account are unable to delete their accounts. Once an admin deletes an account the user will never be able to log in again. I am going through this pain right now with one of my clients. They try to send emails to an alias on their Google domain and it goes off into space. When the primary email address is used email flows properly.

    It looks as though the solution is going to be the implementation of an exchange server. Which will be a blessing to say the least! If anyone knows of a fix for business accounts please let me know so we can fix this until we get an exchange server implemented.

    Thank you

    Eric

    • Eric, business accounts in Google are a whole ‘nother kettle of worms. I too am using Google business accounts and for the most part they work wonderfully, but when it comes to the highest-level functions of account control, account mapping, and alias, Google seems to struggle as much as anyone.

      With all the resources Google has, and all the reasons they have to solve these problems, I think it points to only one conclusion: identity management is an issue with Internet infrastructure at such a low level that not even Google (which has built its entire company on Internet infrastructure) can solve.

      As someone who has been working on Internet identity infrastructure for 15+ years now, I sympathize with them. I think the solutions are finally coming over the next few years, but they are at such a deep level of the infrastructure that don’t be surprised if they take a good 5-10 years to reach wide scale adoption. (Hint: one of them is personal clouds, which I now work on full time at Respect Network.)

  36. Michael Daitzman says:

    Also be aware that you may have alternative email addresses which also have associated google accounts in which case this will not work.

    In my case I had to remove the alternate email address from all my other google accounts in order to be able to change and log into the google account.

    +1 to google coming up with a way to merge accounts

    • Olga Pizzi says:

      I believe my account has been aliased in this way by a stalker. I need to hire someone tofix it because I also believe he is using google chrome to listen in on my calls.

  37. Richard says:

    I found a better solution: I tell people to send me files the old-fashioned way and I refuse to accept any shared anything from Google Docs.

  38. Michele says:

    When I got my Chromebook it insisted at one point that I HAD to get a gmail account to do what I wanted it to do (I”ll call this the gmail addy). So I did, and associated it with my existing “work” Google Account, which was registered by me@mydomain.com (domain addy). There are occasional glitches that are super frustrating. The Chromebook now has a different “owner” account (domain addy) and regular user (gmail addy), and doesn’t recognize them as both emails being from the same account. If I try to use both accounts data/wallpaper/settings etc get confused and intermixed. Some data on my Chromebook has actually become inaccessible. I can’t purchase things from the Google Play store on my Chromebook, it insists I am logged in under the wrong account (gmail addy, not the Chromebook owner), but when I managed to log in under the owner domain addy, it automatically switches back to the gmail addy. So Google PlayStore understands they are the same account (kinda), but the Chromebook does not. Sigh. Now, Google Calendar has similar glitches.

    Your above work around is too scary given the professional accounts I have, with all the services…Adwords, Adsense, YouTube, Google+ pages, etc. At least at the moment. I”ll probably be back.

    You are right there is ZERO information about this out there. WTF? Are we the only ones? ;)

    Thanks so much for your post!

  39. Alex Bartels says:

    Hello all,

    I dont know if this is the right place to put down the problems i have with my Gmail account / Google acount. Hope someone can help me out!

    Years ago i created two gmail accounts like:

    firstname(dot)lastname@gmail.com
    and
    firstnamelastname@gmail.com

    In time i created a Google account connected to firstname(dot)lastname@gmail.com
    Today i suddenly came up with the idea to use that old mail address firstnamelastname@gmail.com. I tried my old passwords but that didn’t work out, so i tried to reset password. At that point i saw that this old email address was connected to my Android phone!
    Then i thought, could it be that those accounts are “the same” accounts?
    I stopped trying to reset password and used the password i use for the email address firstname(dot)lastname@gmail.com, and, guess, it worked!!

    Strange thing is, when i log in this way, it’s exactly the same as if i log in with my usual email address, so firstname(dot)lastname@gmail.com.

    But, it’s getting more weird, when i send an email to firstnamelastname@gmail.com i receive it
    at firstnamelastname@gmail.com!

    I tried to set-up Outlook with the credentials for firstnamelastname@gmail.com, but there’s no email
    arriving at that inbox, and it’s neather giving me an error when checking for new mail.

    It seems that my old gmail address is converted to an alias for the newer gmail account!

    Is that weird or what?

    Regards,
    Alex Bartels
    The Netherlands

  40. Alex Bartels says:

    **TYPO**

    But, it’s getting more weird, when i send an email to firstnamelastname@gmail.com i receive it
    at firstname(dot)lastname@gmail.com!

    • Alex,

      I’ve heard about something like this before, i.e., that Gmail does not distinguish between firstname.lastname and firstnamelastname Gmail addresses. But I don’t know that definitively.

      I’d try doing a Google search (irony alert ;-) ) on that subject to see what else has been written about it.

      =Drummond

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