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Eric SchmidtWhy can’t Google built a social networking product that resonates with consumers? You could speculate about the engineer-driven company’s culture and priorities, but today executive chairman Eric Schmidt offered a simple explanation: “I screwed up.”

Speaking at the D9 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Schmidt (pictured above at another event) said that a few years ago, when he was CEO, he realized that social was an important issue for Google. He kept writing memos to that effect … but he didn’t pursue it enough, and nothing happened.

Journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, who were interviewing Schmidt on-stage, countered that Google has been experimenting with social products like Google Buzz for a while now — it just hasn’t been very successful. He didn’t address Buzz directly, but Schmidt insisted that as CEO, he had to take responsibility for Google’s failure.

Regardless of past stumbles, social networking seems to be a priority for Google now. New CEO Larry Page reportedly reorganized the company and tied bonuses to the success of social products, and Google recently launched a social search product called Google +1, where users can share search results they like with their friend. The company will continue to release features that bring social features into search and other Google products, Schmidt said.

Of course, one way to get that data would be to work with Facebook, similar to the way Microsoft integrates Facebook data into its search engine Bing. Google tried to make a deal with Facebook too, Schmidt said, but “Microsoft was willing to give them terms that we were unwilling to.”

Swisher also asked if the real way Google can win at social is by acquiring Twitter. Schmidt said he wasn’t going to answer acquisition questions, but added that social strategy “does not require” Google to buy a company like Twitter because “people are willing to give us the information” that Google needs.

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