How quickly things change. It was just a week ago it seemed as investor angst surrounding Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and its growing list of challenges was beginning to wane. But since it closed at $539.95 a share as recently as Jan 23, Google shaved about $30 off its stock price heading into its Q4 earnings report. The bearish sentiment seems counter-intuitive considering that consensus estimates suggest Google would report earnings-per-share growth in Q4 of nearly 20%.
So, why all the negativity? The same concerns that have plagued the search king for much of the past quarter came back with a vengeance before Google management took the proverbial earnings podium. Slowing overall revenue growth and continued pressure on Google's Cost-Per-Click, or CPC, ad rates due to users shifting to mobile devices are the primary culprits. Toss in competition from Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and its wildly successful efforts to garner larger portions of marketers' mobile ad budgets, and the pressure was on.
Just the facts
In some respects, Google is a victim of its own success. Expectations of 17% revenue growth compared to last year's Q4, and the aforementioned estimates of a 19% jump in earnings per share, would be stellar results for most companies -- but Google isn't most companies. Which is why so much was riding on its earnings report.
While revenues increased year over year in Q4, Google's $18.1 billion fell short of expectations, and after-hour traders immediately began jumping ship. However, after the initial negativity, Google's quarterly revenue jump of 15% compared to Q4 of 2013, and annual sales of $66 billion, which equaled a 19% improvement, seems to have won over many of the late traders.
As for earnings per share, again Google missed the vaunted analyst estimates of $7.11 per share, instead reporting GAAP -- including one-time items -- earnings of $6.91 per the 688 million shares outstanding, compared to $6.01 per share in Q4 2013. Still, a 15% pop in per-share earnings is nothing to sneeze at.
Like a lot of companies that generate significant revenues overseas -- $10.23 billion of Google's total revenues of $18.1 billion were from its international operations -- the strength of the U.S. dollar negatively affected Google's net earnings, to the tune of about $500 million. To put that into perspective, Google's primary digital advertising competitor Facebook got hit with more than $100 million because of foreign rates last quarter. Of course, Facebook generated $3.85 billion last quarter, or about one-quarter of Google.
The all-important CPC ad rates, a continual thorn in Google's side, hasn't turned the corner as yet based on Q4 results. While paid clicks increased by 14% compared to 2013's Q4 -- that's the good news -- CPC rates for Google sites dropped a whopping 8%. Decreasing CPC ad rates and increasing expenses, in a nutshell, are largely responsible for what was a so-so earnings report.
Where to go from here?
An area Google bulls and bears alike were anxious to hear more about was the current status of YouTube. With the advent of video advertisements, an opportunity Facebook is aggressively pursuing in 2015, YouTube remains the undisputed leader. Unfortunately, Google doesn't break out specific YouTube-related revenues, but estimates suggest that 2014 ended with nearly $6 billion spent on video ads, of which about 19% went to YouTube.
According to Google, YouTube revenues jumped 50% last year, and mobile YouTube ad sales doubled compared to 2013. Interestingly, Google added that, on average, YouTube users who viewed ads watch them for 1.5 minutes, something advertisers must absolutely love. Not surprisingly, tools to jump-start mobile ad sales were also a topic of discussion, as were recent Fiber rollouts.
Google didn't comment on rumors that it's thinking about entering the wireless business, but that's a market that could also drive future growth. Unfortunately, shareholders hoping Google would give back some of its $64 billion plus in ready cash -- and that's just here in the U.S. -- in the form of a dividend were again disappointed.
Yes, analysts were tripping over each other to cut Google's target share price leading up to its Q4 and 2014 annual earnings report, but even that's not as bad as it might appear. With the sell-off prior to its earnings report, and a consensus price target of $580 a share, Google still offers investors in search of value a lot of upside.