Google's Growth Engine Is Mobile and Social

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) shares are jumping sky-high today after a brilliant second-quarter report. But where's the beef? Let's sit down and try to find the real meat in the biggest investing story of the week.

By the numbers
In terms of raw financial muscle, Big G did much better than expected:

  • Non-GAAP earnings of $8.74 per share crushed the $7.84 average analyst estimate. Wall Street had been lowering that target all spring, but the final result even made a mockery of the $8.07 expectation posted in March.
  • GAAP revenue was expected to hit $8.6 billion, but landed at a cool $9 billion instead.
  • Analysts had expected non-GAAP net margins somewhere around 29.7%, but were treated to a 31.6% margin instead. Their fears of out-of-control cost increases were clearly unfounded.
  • Despite a couple of expensive and seemingly impulsive real estate buys that raised Google's capital expenses drastically, free cash flow grew 62% year over year. That's easily faster than the 32% revenue growth or the 36% jump in EPS.

So far, so impressive -- but the cold, hard data points don't say much about who's driving this train.

Android
CEO Larry Page dropped one little nugget for Android watchers: 550,000 devices are activated every day. That's up from the 500,000 little green robots booted up daily as of late June, or about three weeks ago.

Note that these are gadgets actually finding their way into the hands of consumers. It doesn't measure units shipped to distributors, but then perhaps never sold -- the metric of choice for Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) BlackBerry products. Especially in tablets, where Android models have failed to catch on, shipment figures can far exceed end sales. In Apple’s (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) case, thin channel inventory at partners like Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) and AT&T (NYSE: T  ) make this shipment-and-sales analysis less of an issue. 

All told, there are now more than 400 different Android devices on the global market, spread across 231 carriers in 123 countries, and made by 39 different designers and manufacturers. With such widespread industry support, it's no surprise to see huge activation numbers. However, Google is still reluctant to talk about hard numbers when it comes to what Android brings to the top or bottom lines. That simply has to change eventually, but we're not there yet.

Monetizing social traffic
YouTube now gets 3 billion daily views, and Google is working on better tools for monetizing that voluptuous traffic. For example, allowing users to skip ads appears to leave interested users watching them more often, thus increasing their value to Google and advertisers alike. As a user, I'd sure like to see more of this. As a Google investor, I'd love ad clients to pick up on that trend and make better use of this enormous resource.

Then there's that tantalizing Google+ effort. Larry talked himself warm over this project, noting that more than 10 million users have already joined, despite numerous hurdles like the invitation-only structure and intermittent join-up windows even for invitation holders. And we're not just signing up and then signing off -- those paltry 10 million users already generate 1 billion "items shared and received" daily.

That's one busy beehive, folks. What will happen when Google opens the doors to anyone and everyone? Gmail followed the same strategy and sported 193 million visitors as of last September. Unless that activity rate of 100 daily clicks per person is nothing but the novelty of a fresh tool, Google+ could quickly become a huge eyeball magnet and ad-click generator. I hope Larry and friends have figured out how to handle the money-making structure around it all, because this is a big deal.

The future is now
Skeptics will say that Google is losing China to Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) and facing more pressure in America from Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Bing, and that the whole ad-driven revenue stream eventually has to dry up anyway. Did we forget about the dot-com crash already? This quarter must have been a fluke, because the growth prospects are obviously evanescent.

Larry Page would disagree, though. "All of us at Google will want to create services that people in the world use twice a day, just like toothbrush," he told analysts on the earnings call. "And we strive to make those services beautiful, simple and easy to use. That way, we can provide huge benefit to the world. We've made a good start, but we're only at 1% of what's possible. Google is just getting started."

While that 1% figure might be a bit of hyperbole, I agree that the company has a lot of work left to do -- and that shares have a long way to rise yet. Google is much more than a loose bundle of ad clicks, and the moat around this business is wider and deeper than you might think. And Google+ just filled it with hungry mutant alligators.

Can Google overcome its many challenges and take this spectacular performance to the next level? And will you see the signs before the stock makes its next big move? The best way to stay on top of Google, or any other stock, is to add it to your Foolish watchlist. Just click here to get started.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AT&T, Google, Baidu, Microsoft, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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