To understand the difference between the two, one must go back in time and look at an era before Facebook or even before Google’s existence. Social networks have existed for almost as long as humanity has but over the last few years, large players have tried to narrowly define social networks as centralized destinations where people gather. Whether it is sixdegrees.com (the first internet based social network, dating back to the 1990s), mySpace, Orkut (Google’s early foray into the space), Facebook, or Twitter, much of what has been thought about as social networks has been about the place where people gathered, rather than the people who gathered there.
If one were to draw an analogy to how social networks existed before the internet, the current accepted definition of a social network would be a building, because that’s where people go to meet. When looked at it through that lens, the premise start falling apart. Why would WHERE people gather matter more than HOW people are connected?
Google+ does have a location where people gather but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Google treats Google+ not as a destination but rather as a portable identity that can attach to its different services. In a real world situation, Google+ is a phonebook (though today, one could argue it’s the address book on your smartphone as phonebooks have largely disappeared): Google+ is designed to enhance the experience of existing services rather than as a place to hang out.
Google+ is now behind your email (it’s in Gmail), your chats (it powers Google hangouts), your calendar (in Google Calendar), your documents (it’s in Google Drive), your pictures (stealing a big functional element of Facebook by offering it in an integrated fashion with Android devices) and your videos (youTube channels are now managed via Google+); It’s there when you comment on a blogspot site or review a business or restaurant on Zagat and Google map.
Google+ helps personalize your search and powers Google Now, the creepy but useful service that anticipates your need. And soon, expect Google+ to power commenting on YouTube, activation on Android devices and Google Chrome, and complete management of your address book.
Google+ serves as glue instead of destination, which means that any comparison between Google+ and Facebook is similar to comparing people who love New York with the Empire State Building: One is a group of people, who can do different things based on some invisible association (love of New York) while the other is a destination where those people or other people can gather for a brief period of time before they move on to some other place.
It is this critical difference that represents an existential threat to Facebook and those who follow its model (eg. Twitter, Tumblr) because it means that the place they create serves as a destination, an area that may be attractive one day and not so interesting the next. By comparison, Google+’s approach is much more boring but also much more resistant to long-term changes because it focuses on links between people instead of being a destination.
Links, in general, are harder to monetize than destinations because destinations fit the traditional model of eyeballs while links fit the model of the web as a whole: links augment other things but the individual value of a link cannot be defined outside of the context of other links. But links are also more resilient than destinations: once a series of links has been established, it is harder to undo than trying to switch from one destination to another.
That is the core of Google+’s strategy and why it will probably win out the future of social applications. Through this initiative, Google is creating an infrastructure that ties you and your friends to everything it and its partners do. By doing so, the company is building up an improving profiles of the things you’re interested in (think of it as an implicit “like” network as opposed to Facebook’s more explicit approach of “like”-ing things) or are wondering about (through its search integration), places you’ve been and are going to (through its maps integration), and relationships you’re maintaining (through its analysis of gmail and chat hangout patterns).
While companies like Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo (through its more recent acquisitions, including Tumblr) have been busy building destination sites on which they can display advertising, Google has been using destinations as a driver for what advertising to display next. This kind of inference based on previous patterns sits at the core of what Google+ is about and, interestingly, a Google alumni has founded a company that would fit nicely in that vision: Foursquare, with its recent switch to search, seems to be the perfect database of location signals for Google to pick up. It’s a natural marriage that will probably happen unless a competitor changes direction and realizes that social is not a destination but a process that can serve as connective tissue for multiple services.