John Hanke, the widely respected man who led Google-acquired Keyhole Inc and ran Google Maps for the past six years, has announced that he will now lead a new experimental incubator inside of Google dedicated to building mobile, social and location-based apps.

Hanke told Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling in an interview today that he was feeling restless and considered leaving Google to join a startup. Instead, he will lead a team of less than twenty people based in San Francisco and functioning "like a startup" - with the benefits of Google-scale resources and without the struggle for financial self-sustainability, of course. "Our goal will be to pump out prototypes quickly and see what sticks," Hanke told Sterling.

Industry watchers emphasize Henke's big role in Google's geo success to date. "When google bought Keyhole," geotechnology M&A advisor Marc Prioleau told ReadWriteWeb, "everyone says that got them the technology for Google Earth, but I think what was most important thing they got was the people. Henke's the guy who put mapping and geo into local search, Google is at the forefront of that and John is at the forefront of their work."

Considered alongside Marissa Mayer's recent switch of focus from search to location, it's clear that Google is putting some of its very brightest minds in this area. This week's launch of Google Places and Hotpot mobile apps are just a taste of what's likely to come.