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When Google+ was unveiled in June of last year, it was clear that the company had created its best social networking product to date.

Obviously inspired to some extent by Facebook, if Google+ had been launched by a start-up instead of the world's largest search engine, some pundits might have labelled it a potential threat.

And for good reason: there was a lot to like about Google+.

It was clean, sort of like Facebook back in the day, and lest it be accused of copying Facebook entirely, Google added some interesting features to the mix - such as Circles and Hangouts.

A year later, thanks in large part to a major marketing push and integration with search, Google+ has attracted some 170m registered users (according to Google) and has traffic that would be respectable for any year-young start-up.

But whether Google+'s trajectory has it ever becoming a top-tier social network, let alone a Facebook competitor, is still subject to debate and there are no doubt good reasons to be skeptical of its prospects.

So what's Google to do? One of the only things it can do: redesign.

Yesterday, Google announced a major overhaul to Google+. It features, among other things, a customisable vertical navigation providing easy access to features like Circles, Hangouts and Photos, a dedicated page for Hangouts and a revamped news stream featuring what Google calls "conversation 'cards'" and "activity drawers".

Google's designers have also added a number of JavaScript touches, such as drag and drop and hover menus, and, for discoverability, an Explore page "that shows what's interesting and trending across the network."  

From a user experience perspective, there's a lot to genuinely like about this Google+ redesign, and one might argue that in some areas, Google+ clearly bests Facebook. But the big question is whether any of this matters.

That's because a social network thrives because of its userbase and the network effects that the userbase creates. Right now, it's not clear that a better mouse trap is going to attract more users to Google+ given that it has to compete for attention with other popular social networks that serve largely the same purpose, namely Facebook.

Obviously, Google has little choice but to continue to invest in making Google+ a better product, and with this redesign, it's proving that it can do that quite well. But even so, the fate of Google+ may be in Facebook's hands, not Google's.

On this note, it's worth considering that Facebook's $1bn purchase of Instagram marks an important turning point for the world's largest social network as it prepares to go public.

While Facebook has been active on the M&A front for some time, its modus operandi has been to acquire start-ups for talent, not product. That it would spend $1bn purchasing a service that many believe does photo sharing better than Facebook, and opt to keep it running as a standalone entity, may hint that Facebook is losing its ability to out-innovate the competition, or, at the very least, is losing its will to out-innovate now that it can simply buy the competition.

If that's the case, an ever-improving Google+ may just have a pulse - if Google waits long enough.

Patricio Robles

Published 12 April, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2390 more posts from this author

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David Petherick

I have to disagree with a central theme of this article, which seems to assume that Google+ and Facebook are in direct competition: - "it has to compete for attention with other popular social networks that serve largely the same purpose"

I don't think Google+ does serve the same purpose, just as Twitter and Facebook don't serve the same purpose. It's a different animal. Google+ lets you share in quite different ways, and lets you have topic-focused search and interaction that Facebook simply does not. But I think a lot of people miss the point that, with Google+, Google also gains a Gmail user, a Google Docs user, A Google Play user, a Google search user, a Google Maps user, a YouTube user... when you realise how G+ acts as the entrypoint and as glue across that, you start to perceive Facebook as a one-trick pony.

Facebook is a huge repository for personal photographs, but it still felt it necessary to acquire Instagram at roughly twice its valuation. Why? Because Instagram does a far better job of getting photos that mean something to people off their camera phones and into social graphs. Using Facebook on my iPhone is a terrible experience, but using Instagram is a joy.

Interestingly, I came across this article through Google+ - not RSS, not email, not Facebook, not Twitter.

over 4 years ago

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Chris Norton

I like the new additions - its a lot slicker and feels like a better application. They are obviously keen to fight the timeline element. Despite them banging on about having millions of users though - I saw some research last week that said the average Google+ user spent just 3 minutes a week on it. I am afraid to say - I agree with the research.

over 4 years ago

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Karachi Eats

I think in few years G+ will beat facebook may be !

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

David,

Even if we assume for argument's sake that Google+ is very different from Facebook (something I wouldn't agree with obviously), the question is whether mainstream consumers perceive a difference. I don't think there's any evidence that the answer to this is "yes." At least not yet.

over 4 years ago

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Jon

I would agree with David that Google+ isn't in direct competition with Facebook. However Google is clearly trying to meet the needs of the market and it is doing that by creating Google+. Google see Twitter and Facebook providing relevant and immediate information and they had to react to keep up.
This redesign is a positive step but it's still too early to know whether it will really ramp up engagement.

over 4 years ago

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Mahesh Mohan

Google is trying to imitate Twitter and Facebook. But unfortunately Twitter is Twitter and Facebook is Facebook.

over 4 years ago

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Lee Gill

I agree with a lot of what is said in this article, in particular the uncertain outlook for Google+ ... I find Google+ is exactly what I want in a social network, it has the ability to source interesting content from outside my normal social circle in a similar way to Twitter and I like the way you share photos / personal posts. However the simple truth is nobody I know uses it...

For this reason I spend far more time on Twitter / Facebook than I do on Google+

Also I really like the redesign.

over 4 years ago

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Mark Gavalda

Loving the new layout. With user number at 140 million already I think it's definitely growing at a threatening speed (from Fb's point of view) and it may be enough to get even more mainstream acceptance which will solve the current biggest issue that Lee Gill already stated above me: "the simple truth is nobody I know uses it..." As soon as more people join and they keep the UI clean and simple I think it could be a winner for a very large audience.

over 4 years ago

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Wayne Tasker

I cant see Facebook being challenged,they have a strangled hold on this market..
Its like anything unless a new competitor offers something new it will be treated as "more of the same"
Linked In got a huge following fast for one reason...They isolated a niche in the Social Media market...Business.
That kept all the kids out...Genius!

over 4 years ago

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David Loyal

Google are putting their extra efforts to beat the facebook.

over 4 years ago

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