Like any high-flying stock, the current malaise surrounding Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) feels a bit odd. Of course, that's what happens when a company becomes the victim of its own success: the expectations of investors, shareholders, and industry pundits are sky-high, and anything less than extraordinary is unacceptable. A glance at the reaction to Google's recent Q4 and fiscal 2014 financial results attests to that.
When Google announced earnings on Jan 29, after hour traders initially sold shares like they were on fire, briefly dropping its stock price below the $500 mark. By the end of the following trading day, Google's stock price was up about $24 a share. With so much uncertainty, what's a long-term growth investor to do? Despite the recent craziness, there's still plenty to like about Google's prospects going forward -- but enough to outweigh the obstacles?
The challenges are many
Despite a 15% jump in Google's Q4 revenues compared to 2013, earnings-per-share, at least on a non-GAAP basis (excluding one-time items), were up only marginally last quarter to $6.88 a share. While there were legitimate reasons for its paltry 2.7% improvement in per-share earnings, the strong sales results combined with its ho-hum bottomline served as a microcosm of Google's quarter, and year.
The concerns revolve around a few key metrics. For one, Google spent heavily last quarter on data centers, Traffic Acquisition Costs, and other overhead, which pushed expenses up nearly $3 billion compared to the year-ago quarter. The additional spending was in addition to a strong U.S. dollar, which negatively affected exchange rates from Google's international business to the tune of $541 million.
The topic of many Google naysayers is its consistently declining Cost-Per-Click (CPC) rate, which was down yet again last quarter by 8% on its own sites, due largely to consumer's shift to mobile devices. Now, in addition to investors' CPC angst, Google's search market share is declining, rumor has it that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is considering dropping it as the default browser on its wildly popular iOS Safari browser, and the company is losing mobile revenue to its primary digital ad competitor Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). You can see that there are more than a few potholes ahead.
All is not lost
The recently shelved Glass initiative isn't, apparently, dead after all. According to Google, it's just retooling the wearable device. While many, myself included, don't see a viable, widespread market for the odd-looking, invasive devices, apparently Google CEO Larry Page and team think otherwise. Regardless of whether or not Glass ever goes mainstream, there are a few legitimate revenue opportunities in Google's immediate future.
Most everyone seems to love Google Fiber, and why not? A chance to kick cable companies to the curb is reason enough to like Fiber, let alone its faster connectivity and lower cost. Unfortunately, the time and expense of installing the pipe needed to bring Fiber to a neighborhood near you is prohibitive. However, the net neutrality debate could prove to be a boon for Fiber, and revenues, by giving Google access to the telephone poles and infrastructure available to its competitors, foregoing the need for costly installation.
The long-rumored move into offering wireless services has picked up steam of late, and with its dominant position in the smartphone OS market -- Apple is a distant second in that regard -- pundits have suggested Google could generate $1 billion in revenues in just a few years offering wireless to its Android users. And that's likely a conservative estimate should Google opt to go all-in.And you can bet Google products will be the defaults, driving additional ad revenues.
Steps to address declining CPC rates and mobile ad share to Facebook are already in the works, as evidenced by Google's latest suite of measurement tools for its marketing partners, and a push for YouTube video spots. For what it's worth, Google analysts are fairly bullish, with a consensus price target of $600 and mostly strong buy ratings. But despite its fans among the analyst community, Google is at its most vulnerable right now, with big hitters like Apple and Facebook nipping at its heels.
That being the case, if you're a Google shareholder there's no sense in running for the hills now. If not, other growth opportunities like Facebook make better sense right now, at least until Google is able to initiate one or more of its new revenue opportunities, and right its CPC and mobile ship.