Google Inc plans to gradually introduce social-networking features to its sites starting this fall, as the Web search giant seeks to compete against rapidly growing Facebook. CEO Eric Schmidt told reporters on Tuesday that the Internet search leader intends to gradually work in “layers” of social networking, rather than unveil a flashy new product in one go, but also said he intends to sustain Google's pace of acquisitions. Google has struggled to find the right touch in creating the types of social networking services that have become increasingly popular online activities for consumers. It pulled the plug on Google Wave, a high-profile social networking product launched last year.

Media reports have said it is developing a new social networking product dubbed Google ME in a bid to challenge Facebook, which has more than half a billion users worldwide. The company this year has undertaken a series of small to mid-sized purchases, including a $182 million deal to take over social networking firm Slide, and a $700 million offer for airline ticketing firm ITA Software Inc. Schmidt expects that last deal to win regulatory approval. He said the level of scrutiny it has drawn was similar to that for previous acquisition of Admob, which won a green light. Schmidt was speaking on the sidelines of its Google Zeitgeist event grouping industry executives and the media.

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