Former Google staffer Paul Buchheit told Gawker in an interview via e-mail that he doesn’t think the company can compete with Facebook in the social networking space. “As for social, I expect that Google will find greater success with their self-driving car and moon landing initiatives,” Buchheit told Gawker. “I think it’s worth noting that the two most successful Facebook competitors, Twitter and Foursquare, were both started by people who were relatively unsuccessful at Google.”

Buchheit, who according to his CrunchBase profile created Gmail and developed the prototype for Google AdSense, left Google in 2008 to start the social network aggregator FriendFeed. He sold that company to Facebook in 2009 for $47.5 million. In the Gawker interview, Buchheit weighed in on Google’s social skills compared to its competitor Facebook:

Why doesn’t social mesh with where Google is strong, i.e. in basic engineering skills?

Well, that’s a complex question, but the short summary is:

– Google’s strength is in building large scale computer systems like BigTable [definition], and they reflexively try to apply that to all problems (if all you have is a hammer…)
– Facebook is also very good at what they do (unlike MySpace)
– The network effects in social are very substantial

The only good strategy I can see for Google is to create something fundamentally different from Facebook (like Twitter or Foursquare were), but Google probably doesn’t have the right people doing that because of this problem.

[Buchheit is referring to the experience of Dennis Crowley, who sold his "check in" service Dodgeball to Google in 2005 and left unhappily two years later, citing a lack of support. He then started a virtually identical service called Foursquare, now valued north of $90 million and conquering a market Google considers a top priority.]

No wonder Google is considering a startup incubator to retain talent.