What is Social Login and How Does it Work?

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Social login (also known as social sign-on or social SSO) is an authentication method that enables users to log in to apps using their existing social network accounts to confirm their identity. For example, they’ll click “Sign in with Facebook” on an app’s login page, grant Facebook permission to share their identity details with the app, and voila. It lets users access your app or website without having to create a new set of credentials from scratch—or remember yet another password.

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Fig: Social logins in action

Let’s walk through how the process works, the benefits for both users and developers, some common pitfalls, and how you can implement social login in your next app or website.

How social login works

Social login is a passwordless login option governed by the Open Authorization (OAuth 2.0) and OpenID Connect (OIDC) standards. OAuth allows websites and applications to use information from social network sites by ensuring the information is used confidentially and securely.

On the user side, the process is incredibly straightforward, breaking down into four main steps:

  1. At the login screen of your app, users are prompted with options to “Sign in with…” their chosen social account. Common examples include Facebook, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn.

  2. Users select their account of choice and are redirected to a login for that platform.

  3. Users agree to one or more permissions prompts provided by the social platform. These “scopes” govern what data the user agrees to share between the social account and the app they are trying to access.

  4. The social platform confirms users’ identity and the user is logged in to your app.

Assuming your users have a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account, all they have to do is click through a few permissions to authenticate.

Social login vs. SSO

Social login operates similarly to another type of authentication many users are increasingly familiar with: Single Sign-On (SSO). Like SSO, social login allows one trusted provider to provide user identity and authentication details to your app or website. That said, there’s a key difference in how they work.

In SSO, a single trusted resource provides tokens for access to a limited selection of connected apps and websites. A common example is corporate email addresses providing SSO access to accounts associated with them. To access a company Slack channel, for instance, employees may be required to log in to their Google or Outlook accounts first. This method can work well in corporate environments where users are frequently logging in to the same suite of apps or sites.

In contrast, social login is much more flexible. Users are given the option to log in with a social media profile of their choice, which could lead to greater adoption of your app. This makes social login a more common choice for consumer apps. However, using options such as “Sign in with Google” and “Sign in with Microsoft”, social login can also be used in a business context if users have an employer account on those sites.

Benefits of social login

Social login benefits both developers and end users in a variety of ways:

  • Fewer fake accounts – Social login can reduce the number of fake accounts created on your app or platform by requiring association with an existing social network presence.

  • Reduced password fatigue – Social login makes signing in to your app easier. Users never have to worry about remembering another set of credentials.

  • Lower costs – Since users don’t create a new set of credentials for an app that uses social login, the app developers don’t have to worry about password storage, hashing, and ongoing management.

Some pitfalls of social login

There are also potential drawbacks to social login methods, which have led to a relative drop in social login in recent years. Some of the biggest issues people have are:

  • Data privacy concerns – Users have concerns about the ways social media platforms collect and use their data, so they may be hesitant to give another app access to it.

  • Single point of failure – Although unlikely, using social login might lead to account compromise through a “single point of failure”. Compromised credentials for a user’s social media account can give attackers access to your platform and any other accounts associated with it. 

  • Complex protocols and standards – The standards governing social login are open and interoperable, but can also be time-consuming for developers to build in-house. Even seasoned developers find it tricky to implement OAuth and OpenID Connect into their apps.

The security concerns of social login can be mitigated through secure social media practices—which you can encourage through user support or require for your app’s social login solution.

How to implement social login for your app or website

Social login uses the OAuth 2.0 and OpenID Connect standards for authentication and authorization. If you are thinking of building social login for your app, here are just some things you will need to consider:

  • Deciding which social providers you want to integrate with and deciphering how they interpret the OpenID Connect specification.

  • Figuring out which grant or flow type to use (authorization code, implicit, hybrid, client credentials, etc.)

  • Understanding the basics of scopes and claims, and what claims your app needs to get back from the identity provider.

  • Testing and validating all authentication flows.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it often is. 

Streamline your authentication with Descope

If you’re looking for a simple, user-friendly authentication method for your app or website, social login might be the perfect fit. Social login can:

  • Reduce onboarding friction by allowing users to log in to your app without creating new login credentials.

  • Give users the flexibility of choosing what profile they want to use for auth.

  • Stop credential stuffing, brute force attempts, and bot attacks on your login pages.

Descope can help you easily add OAuth social logins to your app using drag-and-drop workflows. Our authentication platform abstracts away the complexity of authentication – while also making it frictionless and secure – so that developers can spend more time on core product and business goals.

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Drag-and-drop social logins with Descope

Implement social logins your way. Sign up for Descope on our “Free Forever” tier and start exploring!