Based on the immediate reaction of investors following Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) recently announced Q4 and year-end financials, it seemed many were left scratching their heads. Upon release of the specifics, after-hours trading briefly pushed Google's share price below the $500-a-share mark. Then, after listening to Google executives explain the quarter's specifics, its stock price shot up the following trading day. What gives?
There were several factors that contributed to Google's wild stock price ride, including long-standing concerns surrounding its declining Cost-Per-Click (CPC) rates and shrinking free cash flow, even as revenues continued to improve and earnings per share jumped double-digits. Apparently, folks were unsure which Google would rise from the ashes. Assuming it can manage a few, key areas as we move further into 2015, the Google that investors have come to know and love could return. We don't know what the stock will do in the future, but let's look at what could go right.
Near the top of the list
It's likely the negative reaction to Google's Q4 results was its ever-declining CPC rates. As has been the case for several quarters in a row now, consumers' shift to mobile devices – which translates to less CPC ad revenues – continues to be Google's Achilles' heel. Last quarter's 8% drop in average CPC rates on Google sites was concerning, but it's also an opportunity going forward.
Google can look to its primary digital advertising competitor, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), to see first-hand just how powerful, and necessary, mobile ad solutions are. Last quarter, after a couple of years of concerted effort, Facebook generated just shy of 70% of its ad revenues from mobile devices. Unfortunately, Google doesn't break out its mobile revenues, but according to research from eMarketer, its share of the fast-growing mobile ad market is declining.
What's a search giant to do? Develop new and improved tools for mobile advertising partners to measure results, and better utilize its reams of online user data to enhance its targeting capabilities -- a la Facebook -- which is exactly what Google is doing. For investors, the first quarter Google announces a stemming of the CPC tide will almost assuredly result in an uptick in its share price. Will it happen? In the long run, investors should think twice before betting against Google and CEO Larry Page.
The future of Google
Google has been, and will remain, an ad revenue machine. Last quarter's 15% jump in revenues, and 19% for the year, was driven by advertising, and that's not going to change. That said, ads aren't the only future growth opportunities at Google's disposal. The buzz surrounding Google Fiber ramped up yet again recently when it was announced that the lightning-fast Internet service was coming to several more cities around the country.
Now, as the U.S. government discusses net neutrality and the regulatory oversight of telecoms, Google Fiber could become a lot more than a niche alternative to cable. If the existing infrastructure telecoms enjoy is made available to the likes of Google, the costly and time-consuming process of installing all those Fiber pipes disappears, and suddenly Fiber becomes a significant revenue opportunity.
Add the long-awaited plans to offer wireless services to its industry-leading mobile devices, and Google has yet another legitimate, and significant, revenue alternative. Unlike driverless cars and the now-shelved Google Glass, opening the doors to Fiber and wireless services would immediately broaden Google's revenue sources; not to mention push ad sales even higher. How? You can bet Fiber and wireless consumers will have all things Google as defaults, just as Android OS consumers do now, pushing ad sales.
Last, but not least
Another area of opportunity for Google lies in getting a handle on its increasing overhead costs. Expenses shared with mobile carriers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), operating expenses, and capital expenditures all skyrocketed last quarter. Certainly, the real estate purchases, investment in data centers and equipment were necessary to sustain future growth, but spending an additional $3 billion compared to 2013's fourth quarter took its toll.
Given the increase in spending, it's not surprising Google's operating income was flat last quarter and margins were pressured. However, while rising expenses were cited by some as a concern, that's a relatively easy fix for Page and team to remedy.
Can Google mend its CPC "problem," kick-start alternative revenue opportunities like Fiber and wireless, and get a hold on spending? If it manages to accomplish all three, Google shareholders should enjoy a nice 2015.