Google Plus recently added a new feature for events and photo-sharing.

Story highlights

Google Plus celebrates its first birthday, launches new features

Google Plus Events integrate with photo-sharing and Google Calendar

The company is positioning the network as an extension of Google

Executive tells Mashable Google Plus is not a 'social network'

CNN  — 

Google Plus, Google’s much-chided version of Facebook, celebrated its first birthday last week.

That probably means one of two things to you.

If you’re a tech geek: “That site’s still around?”

Or if not: “What the heck is Google Plus?”

Both of those reactions, however, may be missing the point.

Here’s a look at a few – and unexpected – reasons Google Plus is clinging to relevance in the Facebook era. (Disclosure: If you’d like to see where this post began, check out a conversation on my Google Plus page. I’m still a sometimes-active user of the site).

‘Social glue’ for the rest of Google

Google last week released a few updates to its social network – including an Events feature and new methods of live photo sharing with small groups. Perhaps more importantly, it underscored the idea that the company doesn’t see Google Plus as a social network at all.

Google’s Vic Gundotra told the blog Mashable that “Google Plus is just an upgrade to Google.”

On one hand, this seems convenient, since Google Plus is losing the numbers game to Facebook. (More on that soon). On the other, it might be really smart. Google Plus has the potential to be the “social glue” that binds all of Google’s already-interesting and already-used products together, writes Richard MacManus, from the blog ReadWriteWeb.

“One year ago, I think we all expected Google+ to turn into a better standalone product than what we’ve got now. But despite that, Google+ has turned out to be incredibly useful to Google,” he says. “If I was to project what Google+ will be like in July 2013, I’d guess it will be even less about being a standalone social network and even more about supporting YouTube, Google search et al.”

You may have noticed this showing up in all kinds of small ways on your version of the Internet. If you have Google social search turned on, you see links friends have posted on Google Plus. It’s now possible to log into YouTube using the network. Google Reader’s “share” feature coordinates with Google Plus these days – and even e-mail lists can be pulled from Google friend “Circles.”

The rest of Google’s products, especially search, are popular, even if Google Plus isn’t on its own.

Passionate audience

OK, so the numbers. Facebook is clearly winning that war.

Google Plus has 150 million monthly active users – compared to Facebook’s 900 million. And there’s evidence, some of it from independent traffic monitors, that Facebook users engage much more frequently and for longer than Google Plus users, at least in public posts (A comScore report in January said Facebook users spent an average of 7.5 hours on the site, compared to 3.3 minutes on Google Plus.”)

As The Atlantic put it: “People are ‘on’ Google Plus, but they are not really ON Google Plus. The infrastructure is there. The street signs are there. People own plots of land. But there’s nobody actually visiting town.”

Or, more cuttingly, BuzzFeed’s version: “Logging into Google+ feels like logging into a seminar, or stumbling into the wrong conference room at an airport Marriott. It looks like a cubicle farm and smells like a hospital. Posting anything on Google+ is like talking into a pillow.”

Forbes wrote a eulogy for the network in 2011.

Google Plus does, however, have some passionate users.

In a comment on my feed, a person identified as Tristan Cunha wrote that the site may have gotten a slow start but now “it’s so easy to find lots of interesting people to follow/interact with that if you can’t find someone, you’re probably just missing the point. Either that, or you want to connect with your long lost friends from high school, which is something that FB probably does better.”

And from another commenter, Colleen Lynn, wrote: “Google+ cannot be dead with so many of us here! It is true that I have not gotten many Facebook friends to join, but as (another user) said, Google Plus is international. If one is interested in learning and sharing in a much broader space than Facebook, Google Plus is the place to be!”

Mobile apps

Mobile apps are another area where Google Plus has been making up ground.

As a blogger at the tech site VentureBeat put it:

“Google Plus is better than Facebook – at mobile.”

Jennifer Van Grove goes on to say the Android tablet app for Google Plus makes Facebook’s apps “look as if they were built in the MySpace era,” adding: “Mobile is Facebook Achilles’ heel, and it certainly doesn’t look good for the newly public company to lose to Google in a mobile face-off.”

That’s especially troubling given that Facebook execs have said mobile is one of the company’s investment areas moving forward.

Video chats

Google Plus’s group video chatting feature, called Hangouts, has long been one of the (only) things that made the site fundamentally different from Facebook and Twitter.

The free service lets friends and/or strangers talk in a group. You can also record the conversations and take live questions from an audience, which makes the feature popular with news sites, celebs and politicians. President Obama hosted a Hangout earlier this year.

To drive this point home in adrenelline-filled fashion, Google streamed a video from a skydiver (who was wearing Google’s version of “Terminator” glasses) at a recent press conference in California using a Hangout.

“As a social network competing with Facebook it’s a flop, but its video-chat tool Hangouts is a winner,” Heather Kelly, now at CNN Tech, wrote for VentureBeat in May.

New features and product integrations

Timed with its one-year anniversary, Google announced a few new Google Plus features – and most of them, as other tech writers have suggested, integrate with Google’s other products.

The Events feature, for example, automatically coordinates with Google Calendar. It also lets attendees at a party or gathering post photos from the event and host Hangouts beforehand.

Here’s how the company describes the feature in a blog post: “Today’s online event tools are really just Web forms that ask, ‘Are you going?’ Worse yet, they bail when you need them the most: during the actual event, and after everyone leaves. In life we plan, we party and we keep in touch. Software should make all of this more awesome.”

A “live slideshow” feature lets hosts display photos from the event as they’re taken.

Do you think these updates are enough to save Google Plus? Do you use it? Do you still see it as a Facebook competitor? Let us know what you think in the comments section – or, if you want to get super meta, on Google Plus.