Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) has been in the market's doghouse for a few months, and it remains to be seen if mixed financial results and putting out guidance calling for slowing top-line growth will be enough to get it back on track to become a market darling again. China's leading search engine announced fourth-quarter results shortly after Thursday's market close.
Revenue rose 22% to hit the U.S. equivalent of $3.96 billion for the quarter, well ahead of the 15% to 20% that it was targeting nearly four months ago. Baidu was able to deliver expectations-thumping growth despite Baidu Core -- its flagship online search business that accounts for roughly three-quarters of its revenue -- and saw its top-line contribution slow to a 14% advance.
Digging beneath the surface
Baidu's business is growing faster than the 22% reported gain suggests. It has sold some of its non-essential businesses over the past year, placing Baidu's growth in the quarter at 28% once you exclude the impact of the divestitures. Guidance on that basis in late October was calling for just a 20% to 26% increase.
Things get hairier as we work our way down the income statement. Operating profit was shaved by more than half on a reported and adjusted basis. The slide recovers by the time we get to the bottom line -- with adjusted earnings per share slipping 17% to land at $1.92 a share -- and that was actually better than what investors were expecting.
There were some stiff headwinds working against Baidu this quarter. China's slowing economy is weighing on marketing budgets, and the average advertiser is spending less on Baidu than a year earlier to smoke out leads. Baidu is also making big investments in its content-tethered platforms, leading to content costs nearly doubling to more than $1 billion for the quarter.
Guidance for the current quarter calls for top-line growth continuing to slow. Baidu sees revenue climbing 12% to 18% for the first quarter, up 18% to 24% adjusted for its divestitures. Even if revenue lands at the high end of its range, we'll still be looking at the third-consecutive quarter of decelerating revenue gains.
There's still plenty to like in Baidu. It remains the dominant search engine in China and is making inroads in everything from mobile -- where daily active users for its Baidu App are up 24% over the past year -- to short video platforms.
China's economy will need to get back on track for growth to begin picking up the pace again, but there's still a lot of growth, even in this imperfect operating climate.