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You make some good points about how Google can use, and is using, its strengths in other areas to help push G+.

I think this is the most important factor, much more so than features such as Circles. That's because, though they are nice and have brought in a useful innovation, Facebook has the people and money to be able to copy any feature tweak that someone else tries and turns out to be popular.

What lets another firm really challenge a big, rich competitor is when they can do things which simply having lots of resources don't easily let you match - as with Google making use of its big email and search user base, something that Facebook's money can't simply buy (even if they buy up another search company).

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