Thursday, November 8, 2012

Is log-in with Facebook/Google better than with normal passwords?

You know how there are websites where you don't have to think of a new username and password when you register, and you can just log in with Facebook or Google instead? That's called SSO - Single Sign On, and there's a huge trend towards adopting this approach all over the web.

The arguments in favor seem strong: 
  • It's easy. Users don't want to generate a new set of credentials. SSO will thus cause less users to drop out before registering.
  • It's secure. The more credentials a user has to keep track off, the less secure his online world is going to be, since he'll likely choose the same easy-to-remember passwords over and over.
  • It's faster. One less thing to do to register. Just click on the big, familiar Facebook button, then up comes a pop-up from Facebook asking for permission, and you're done.
  • It's ubiquitous. Basically everybody already has a Facebook/Gmail account.
  • It's less headache. You're not storing user credentials, so the townspeople won't come after you with pitchforks when you get hacked.
  • It's easy to implement. In fact, there ain't much to implement, since it's been done a thousand times before and is offered as a library or a service.
So, easiest decision ever, right? Our new website shall be a beacon of progress, relying only on SSO for authentication.

Or     is      it?
Pam, pam, paaaaaam!

One of the popular proponents of SSO is Stack Overflow. From the day it launched, Stack Overflow never offered a traditional log in option - only SSO. Here's what their log-in screen looks like:
So, which account did we sign-up with to Stack Overflow? Was it the Google or Facebook option? What happens if I choose the wrong one? Would a new account be created? Are these the sort of questions you need your users to be asking themselves constantly?

In short - SSO is not that easy, at least when there's more than one SSO option to choose from. More choice isn't always good. Too much of it can lead to inaction - users turning away.

There isn't always that much choice. Here's's log in page:
Granted, I still need to remember if I registered with my own credentials or with Facebook, but I guess that's a bit easier to remember.

At least SSO is still faster, right? You don't have to type anything or try every one of your different passwords till you get the right one. But then again, doesn't the browser already do that? Every browser now offers to remember your log in details for you, and some even go ahead and fill out the log in form for you automatically. Browsers have become password managers, and pretty good ones at that. With a password manager working for you, logging in becomes just one click. That's actually faster than with SSO. With SSO, first you have to click on your SSO provider (click #1) and then, depending on whether or not you're already logged in to Facebook or whatever you have to also wait for their pop-up (so slow...) and either click inside it to confirm, or (worse) actually do the whole log in thing with Facebook.

So, traditional log in: 1 click.
SSO: 1 click + a whole lot of waiting for popups + potentially an additional log-in

But wait, there's more! If you really care about security and speed, you're likely using a full fledged password manager, like LastPass. LastPass doesn't just keep track of your passwords very securely, it also generates them for you - nice, long, random ones. But, most importantly, LastPass works very hard to make sure it knows how to auto-fill every bloody log in form on every bloody web site. It's not a hit-or-miss feature, like the ones inside browsers. And, if you choose, it will automatically click on the log in button for you. So if you're using LastPass you can actually skip the entire log-in process entirely. Zero clicks.

To recap: SSO - 1 click at the very minimum; Traditional log-in: 0 clicks.
SSO is actually much, much slower than traditional credentials.

And SSO isn't really more secure than using a good password manager. In either case once your main password (for Facebook/LastPass) is compromised, hackers can log in to any of your SSO accounts. Granted, more people use Facebook than LastPass, so SSO still has the upper hand in terms of ubiquity, but, with time, I believe we'll see the equivalent of LastPass built into every browser.

The last point is about implementation. Here, traditional passwords are easiest, no doubt. They're built into any decent web framework or CMS, so there's really nothing to implement. I've done both and getting SSO to work is pretty easy, but certainly not easier than traditional authentication. And as long as you're not rolling your own, you're likely using a very well tested and secure implementation, which doesn't actually store passwords - only salted hashes thereof - so hacking your site won't give hackers access to your users' other accounts.

All of this is why Gigantt has been using the traditional log in method until now, and we're not likely to change it soon. Down the line - maybe, if it actually helps us reach more users. But we probably won't offer more than one SSO option and we'll almost certainly always keep the traditional log-in option around.


Anonymous said...

It depends on the kind of site: If it's a blog where you need to take the time to register just to comment, it reeks of megalomania. But this is not the case for Gigantt.

Anonymous said...

Can't say I agree. As a user of both SSO and LastPass I usually prefer SSO for most sites.

Main reasons are :
1. Easier to set up. I've turned my back on many sites which required creating and account (even with LastPass, it was too bothersome). Just confirming SSO is much lower barrier to entry.

2. SSO is always available, even when working on a device you don't have control of: borrowed from a friend, internet cafe or hotel or just an exotic platform.

Assaf said...

Good point about support in mobile devices. SSO wins there right now, although I do believe, with time, you'll have a built in password manager in Safari as well, etc.

For me, I've turned away from choosing SSO on any site that has more than one option. I _never_ remember which SSO provider I used. Sometimes it makes sense to choose Facebook, esp if it's a social app. Other times you don't really want too much personal info to be associated with the website you're signing up to, so you'd choose Twitter or Google. Depends. So I can never remember which. It's annoying.

Besides, I really like auto-login. You just don't get that with SSO. That's a must-have for me.

Now, if you compare signing up with SSO vs. traditional auth, you have to be sure you compare apples and apples. e.g. if the site asking for a password is also asking for a whole bunch of other info, then it's not a fair comparison. But on the other hand, if the site just wants an email + password twice - with LastPass it's very easy. It'll actually offer to generate them for you, so this, too, becomes basically one click.

Another advantage of plain passwords is that you don't need to deal with the weird permission some sites ask from your SSO provider. e.g. on some sites, if you register with Google, then they just want your email address - that's fine. But at the same time, if you happen to choose Facebook, they'll also want your basic details or friend list - even though they don't necessarily need it. I see it all the time. With a new credential set you never have these concerns. You know that your account isn't really associated with anything else online (except the email) and sometimes that's an advantage.

Teddy said...

You Definetly want new users start experiencing your product as fast as possible, I vote for SSO and I reccomend having it functional from day one.

OhadG said...

I vote for SSO as well (of course you should still keep the traditional log in as another option).
Windows8 changed its log-in mechanism to first working with Live account. Win8 installation actually asks for Live account, and when you're signed in to Windows, the browsers and other applications automatically perform SSO with Microsoft products.

This is how most of mobile devices working today, with google/facebook/live accounts, everything with SSO, and users get used to it.

I think that when I have a Microsoft's surface device (or Win8 laptop), which will be connected to my corporate AD, or to my Live account, I would like to log in everywhere with my logged on credentials (using NTLM or whatever).
SSO with GitHub or/and Live accounts would be great.

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