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.