There was a point when Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) was easy to understand. This was when it was simple to just refer to the tech giant as "search giant." Granted, Google is still the king of search. But those days of measuring the company solely on its search prowess are gone. Google has pushed into smartphones, tablets, operating systems and most recently hardware. This company clearly has ambitions beyond search.
Bears will argue that these goals are scattered. However, just as with its search engine, they also produce results. It's been three weeks since the company reported its fourth-quarter earnings. Since then, shares have soared almost 15% to reach an all-time high of $786. It's hard to imagine that the stock may yet seem undervalued.
It seems however, that company insiders may disagree.According to SEC documents filed last Friday, Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, who owns 7.2 million shares of the company, plans to sell 3.2 million shares. The company said that Schmidt's sale is part of a long-term asset diversification strategy. But why now? Should investors interpret this move as an insider "calling the top"? But what exactly did Google's Q4 results suggest?
With all of the growth comes plenty of angst
There's never a dull moment with Google. On the one hand, the numbers will startle. But they also introduce plenty of anxiety. For instance, even though gross revenue surged 36% year over year and 2% sequentially, bears argue that the growth seems inflated since some of the revenue is outside of Google's "core" business. But even if that were a valid argument, when extracting all of the "extras," Google still produced 22% growth in net revenue.
Besides, this is despite a 56% drop in Motorola revenue, which missed Street estimates by 25%. And remarkably, revenue surged even with a 6% drop in average cost per click, or CPC, which tracks how much money advertisers pay Google. This was offset, though, by a 24% increase in paid clicks.
Nonetheless, Google is still the most dominant advertising model in the world. The company is well ahead of Yahoo! and Microsoft's Bing! search engine. And even though Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) has begun to gain meaningful traction, particularly with mobile, Google is strongly positioned to avert near-term threats in the mobile segment. The long term is another story entirely. For now, despite the strong lead that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) and Samsung enjoy in hardware, Google is doing more than just holding its own.
For that matter, Google's position in mobile devices is arguably more significant today than what it enjoyed in the desktop environment. However, it's anything but straightforward. That CPC has continued its decline is a major source of angst among investors. And it doesn't appear to be a quick fix since traffic acquisition costs, or TAC, continue to rise. This is the metric that tracks how much Google pays to distribution partners.
In the fourth quarter, TAC rose 11% sequentially and 3% year over year. Essentially, Google's strong revenue growth was aided by (among others) Apple, which Google had to pay for the volume of traffic sent to its site. Meanwhile, Apple has been working hard to remove from it IOS any possible advantage that it has given Google, including YouTube and maps.
At the same time, Apple has been incorporating more Facebook utilities in its devices as both companies are trying to leverage each other to keep their users from venturing outside of their platforms. In other words, it appears to be a concerted effort to weaken Google. But is it working? Google understands what's going on. And the company's strategic planning and execution continues to show that it remains focused on one thing -- increasing shareholder value. But at what cost?
Case in point: It was glaring that operating expenses surged 42% to almost $5 billion. The good news is that profitability remains strong as net income jumped almost 7% year over year to $2.89 billion. But margins were anything but clear. It's no criticism on the company, but it's very tricky trying to decipher Google's earnings due to its various business segments.
For instance, despite the 6% increase in operating income, operating margin shifted lower by more than 6%. Essentially, Google's "all inclusive" revenue mix is mainly the cause of the drop. This may or may not be significant since it includes revenue from Motorola, Google Play and YouTube. This might validate some of the criticism among analysts. But does it warrant selling the stock?
There's still plenty to fix
It's hard to disparage a company of Google's size that is still posting record revenue and profits. But as great as this quarter was, it also raised several questions. For example, is the decline in margin a one-time thing, or is it a sign of some underlying weakness in the company's competitive leverage? Also, how much of the 6% drop in the click-through rate is being caused by Facebook, or was it a byproduct of what has been a tough macro climate for advertisers?
In the meantime, the company is in great hands. Whether or not these concerns have influenced the timing of Schmidt's stock sales is immaterial. Plus, with the improving situation regarding Motorola, Google's future remains as bright as ever. I would be a buyer here on this weakness. Investors should expect more good things to come from Google in 2013 and beyond.