google social searchThe press has been speculating since the middle of last year about a new social networking product from Google — its big attempt to compete with Facebook. Now, some recent upgrades to Google products suggest that the company is advancing with its social plans and may be laying the groundwork for the big launch.

The main news today was Google’s update of its social search service, a feature that has been relatively underwhelming until now — it allowed users to share and annotate links, but Google literally marginalized the feature by pushing it to the bottom of the search results. Starting today, however, Google said social results will be mixed into the rest of its links, making them more prominent.

Google is also improving those annotations by pulling in content from other social networking services. For example, you can see when one of your friends has tweeted about a link. (Search Engine Land notes that this feature does not include Facebook “likes”. Last fall, Microsoft added likes to the results in its Bing search engine through a partnership with Facebook. Google’s Marissa Mayer, meanwhile, complained about all the content “locked” inside Facebook and hidden from search engines.)

To pull content from social networks, Google needs information about your social network accounts, so it’s adding new options for connecting those services to your Google account. It’s also adding a prompt on the search results page asking you to connect your accounts.

All of this seems like a significant improvement on its own, but it might really take off when Google launches its full social networking product. That product has been variously dubbed Google Me and Google +1, but whatever it’s called, executives said it will involve adding social features to Google’s existing services rather than building a standalone site. So as Google adds richer social features, more users will (presumably) be inclined to connect their accounts, which in turn will make Google Social Search more widely useful.

Google has also been rolling out a new navigation toolbar that’s visible at the top of the regular search page as well as in applications like Gmail. The company describes this as a “visual update,” but TechCrunch’s MG Siegler notes that it looks pretty similar to the Google +1 toolbar that was leaked last year. What’s missing are the actual social features — like the “loop” function for groups, and the “share” button (which might allow users to share links in Google Social Search?) — but there’s definitely room in the toolbar for more buttons.

The timing seems about right, since Mashable reported last September that Google’s schedule for the social launch had been pushed to spring of this year.