Google Inc. is stepping back a little from its head-to-head competition with Facebook. Google is no longer requiring users to create a Google Plus account to use its other services and now provides a way for people signing up for Gmail and Google Docs to “opt out” of its eponymous social network.

Users signing up for a Google account were formerly required to also create a Google Plus account to use Drive, to store files in the cloud and to create documents in Google Docs, the company’s free office suite. Google Plus profiles are still required to comment on YouTube or to write a review for Google Local, the search giant’s business directory.

Google Plus was launched in 2011 as a way to compete with the growing influence of Facebook, but Plus never grew into the social network that it was designed to be. Social engagement -- the number of times users clicked on a post or listed one themselves -- always lagged behind larger networks from Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

Vivek "Vic" Gundotra resigned from Google in April after running the social network from its inception, leading to speculation that Google Plus would be shut down. CEO Larry Page said Google would “continue working hard to build great new experiences for the ever increasing number of Google [Plus] fans.”

Google had faced online backlash last year after integrating Google Plus with YouTube in June, requiring a profile to post comments on videos. It had strictly required users to create profiles using their real names, leading to criticisms and spam campaigns posted on a number of videos. “Stop trying to ram your own data-mining crap down my throat,” one user wrote.

Google backed down on its real-name requirement in July.