More Surprises Ahead for Google

What's in a miss?
Wall Street is a funny place. Only here can a company "miss" a target it had no part in setting. Only here can management feign surprise by things as inevitable as taxes.

If you're new to the news, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) "missed" its Q4 earnings estimates, turning in $1.54 in "non-GAAP" earnings, as opposed to the $1.76 Wall Street wanted.

There are a couple of fantasies worth noting here. First, the whole non-GAAP shenanigans. Get ready for more of the same -- and not just from Google -- as companies finally have to face the music on those options packages they've been doling out. Google's "wish it were true" earnings number also discounts $90 million of shareholder money it forked over to the Google Foundation.

The real bottom-line EPS came to $1.22 for the quarter. That's a nice, 72% jump over last year's Q4. Cash flow also jumped considerably. I calculate $1.53 billion for the year -- that's after acquisitions as well, since Google is going to need to keep buying to execute its strategy.

Mr. Market gets edgy
But when a stock is priced like Google's, nothing less than trouncing estimates is going to be good enough, because anyone buying a $130 billion company at 100 times earnings has to be baking in optimistic (some might say insane) growth expectations. So, when Google failed to deliver, nervous Nellies sent Google's shares in a direction rarely seen (down), giving gawking headline writers at American newspapers something different to do.

My advice to investors and headline writers: Get used to surprises.

The changing landscape
Google started out as a technology leader, but it's rapidly evolved into a brand. And as search at rivals like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) has gotten smarter, Google's technological advantages begin to shrink. I believe recent events, such as the way Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) strong-armed Google for a billion, and then stiff-armed it on video search, shows just how tight the game is getting. Purchases of print and radio advertising also suggest to me that Google, if it hasn't jumped the shark, might be at least looking at that waterproof motorcycle jacket.

I find it worrisome, not heartening, that Google opened its latest conference call with an emphasis on its brand and user interface. Of all the Google magic that's replicable, the front end is the easiest to ape. If the interface designers at Yahoo! and Microsoft can give us front ends without those heinous commercial eyesores, they'd have a better shot at sticking it to Google.

Expect them to take it.

The math of new math
But there's a bigger shadow on the horizon. Google's brilliant business model is that it's the world's most popular leech. It sells ads based on searches for content, much of which is created by others. We've already seen some backlash against Google's lamprey-like behavior -- from Agence France-Presse, for instance -- but that's a mere whisper of what could happen if Big Media decided to put up a wall and keep Google out.

This is the topic of an interesting column in the Jan. 23 issue of Business Week. Why should Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) , Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , and Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) -- to pick out the latest synchronous computer/media empire -- allow Google to mine its vast content library, and the community intelligence built around that content that characterizes many Web-enabled businesses?

Let me put it this way: If you found out someone was charging two bits a gander for a peek at the treasures stored in your garage, how long would you wait before throwing the bum out and setting up your own turnstiles? Or at least demanding a steep cut?

That same issue of Business Week contains a great article on math and the direction of data analysis. Basically, the world is moving very rapidly toward ever more complex mathematical models of consumer behaviors. This will mean even greater benefits to be reaped from previously difficult-to-dice information, proprietary databases, complex user communities, and other types of content. To be sure, Google is in the hunt for next-generation search technologies, but it doesn't control the raw materials. And that's a major potential problem.

Expect the people who own these valuable assets to not only keep them to themselves, but also to capitalize on them to create search and behavior-modeling algorithms that will threaten Google's current hegemony.

To bet that Google will stay on top of this rapidly changing field is to bet that there's no next Google out there. That's about the dumbest bet I can imagine, since history always proves otherwise.

Foolish bottom line
Surprised by Google's earnings miss? Not me. The only thing that surprises me is that people are still so unwilling to factor any bit of uncertainty into the share price. At $500 a share, investors who want even a market-average return are assuming 30% annual growth in cash flow over the next decade. That's insane.

But, of course, Google is all the rage and you'll never win the popularity contest by being the grumpy Gus. So go ahead and buy your Google shares, everyone. Pay whatever you want. If it makes you happy, fine. Here's another one for you. I predict Google shares will go to $2,000 each. I've got nothing to back that up, but what does it matter? Google's popular, and the stock is, too. It's going to keep going up until, of course, it doesn't.

For related Foolishness:

Seth Jayson has stopped using Google search altogether because he's so bored with the overly blogified results. At the time of publication, he had shares of Microsoft but no position in any other company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick. Time Warner is aStock Advisorrecommendation. Fool rules are here.


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