Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) looks so simple at first blush. Search engine, online advertising, end of story. It's a very simple business model with just a few inputs and an output that depends way too much on an ever-growing Internet.
But in reality, Google is not simple at all. Let me show you five ways this complex beast can catch seasoned investors by surprise:
- Google is so much more than just Web search and advertising. The company modestly lists 43 products if asked. They range from Google Checkout, which competes directly against eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY ) PayPal and the entire Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) catalog, to the investor resource Google Finance, and medical records gateway Google Health. This company gives away a fast, simple browser to consumers and sells all-in-one online collaboration tools to enterprises. Google runs the gamut of online activities, far beyond its simple search background.
- And it's not all online, either. Google sponsors the Android smartphone platform for a reason; services like voice-powered search platform GOOG-411 and a plethora of mobile-friendly communications apps make Google a natural player in the handheld space. I'm far more surprised to see mighty Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) doing well in cell phones, quite frankly. Google built a portfolio of mobile services first and a phone platform second; Apple started with a music player and then bolted connectivity onto it. You tell me who's the impostor here.
- Don't forget about the synergies of this complicated machine. Google Voice can transcribe voice mails in various languages into English text. The speech recognition engine got its basic multilingual training from those GOOG-411 voice searches, and Google Translate can also help you understand emails, news clippings, or regular Web pages written in Swedish or Cantonese. Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) had to buy AltaVista to get a decent translation platform. AltaVista/Yahoo Babelfish can translate English text into 12 other languages; Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) in-house translator can do 13; but Google's algorithms have learned to handle 40 non-English tongues. All this from roots in a seemingly unrelated service.
- And that explains why Google launches experiments the way my three-year-old draws a birthday card: all over the place, in every color of the rainbow. Many of the company's production-level services today come from a humble start in the labs. That includes game-changers like the widely copied Google Suggest (now nearly five years old), AJAX poster child Google Maps, and Microsoft Office usurper Google Spreadsheets, which is now part of the broader Google Apps.
- Finally, Google reports its results in a deceivingly simple way, baking almost everything into two clear-cut divisions. So when you click on a local ad from a Google map, you send a few cents to the Google Sites segment. If it was embedded in your favorite blog, then those pennies move to the Google Network division. That makes it easy to overlook how much of Google's sales come from other things than the advertising on pages of search results. Everything looks like search ad clicks to the untrained eye.
In short, Google is a living, breathing beast that keeps spitting out innovations. On their own, many of these tries go outside the lines and never make any money. But the ones that do hit home can become massive. Google Maps, which started in the labs as one of those famed 20% time projects, now has more monthly visitors than Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) MapQuest.
I bet there are a few surprise hits of that magnitude still brewing deep in Google's cauldrons right now. And I want to be sure that I own this stock when the next Maps shock hits, and when Google figures out how to make money from YouTube.
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