The tech market needs a hero. It will have to settle for Google.
For the average tech consumer, things are going pretty well in October 2014. Ever sleeker, more powerful devices are rolling out by the week. New apps and services, and products are appearing with such frequency it’s hard to keep up with them. But for tech investors, the climate has turned hostile.
In the past month, the Nasdaq Composite has lost 8.4 percent, a harder tumble that the broader market, despite signs that the US economy is gathering steam. The quarterly parade of tech earnings had the potential to change that, but instead investors are seizing any piece of bad news to initiate selloffs. Yesterday, eBay slid 5 percent today after its core ecommerce business fell short of expectations. Netflix beat its earnings, but was beaten down 19 percent in turn because the rate of new subscriptions disappointed.
Into this gauntlet strode Google to report earnings after the stock market closed its active trading session. The stock initially slipped as much as 5 percent but lately trades only 2 percent below its official closing price. Only 2 percent down: That’s what passes for a hero in this market. Everyone’s waiting for a Superman, but they’ll have to settle for Batman - a mere mortal, albeit superrich and with lots of cool gadgets.
Look around at the headlines and most of them say something about slower growth in Google’s ad revenue. This is not really news. It’s pretty much a dog-bites-man headline because it’s been happening for years. Google’s ad revenue grew 17 percent last quarter from the year-ago quarter. Yes, that’s down from 19 percent growth in the second quarter, but it’s up from 16-percent growth in 2013. Besides, slower growth is what normally happens when a company gets bigger. Google’s ad-revenue grew by 29 percent in 2010 and by 56 percent in 2007.
This is more than hairsplitting because it matters where Google is seeing growth and where it isn’t. Google has always divided its ad revenue between those on its owned and operated properties (search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail) and the network of sites that run AdSearch on their sites. The network revenue grew by 9 percent while revenue from ads on Google properties grew twice as much: by 20 percent.
The mobile world, of course, is where the real growth is these days, and yet it’s increasingly navigated via apps. AdSense revenue is lagging because much of it relies on Web sites that are accessed more often on desktops than on mobile devices. Google bought AdMob to address that issue but it’s taking time to fill the desktop-mobile gap.
And so the real question for Google remains, can it make money on mobile ads? Google is sheepish about breaking out desktop and mobile numbers, but the answer seems to be, yes. Ad revenue from Google’s owned-and-operated properties will tally well north of $40 billion this year, and yet it’s growing by 20 percent a year. That’s not Facebook-like 60-percent growth, but for a business of that scale, it’s a sign of robust health.
Cost per clicks have been lower on mobile devices than on desktops. For Google, CPC rates have been declining as mobile usage has increased. But there are signs that may be stabilizing: CPC’s have been flat, on a quarter-on-quarter basis, for the past three quarters. In a call with analysts, Chief Business Officer Omid Kordestani suggested that this is happening as advertisers get a more sophisticated understanding of how to adjust bids and boost conversion rates for mobile ads. “It took many years for the desktop to develop the right formats in ad platforms as well,” Kordestani said.
Google is also getting an overall boost from its “other” category - largely from things like Play and Drive. The “other” category now makes up 11 percent of total revenue, up from 5 percent a year earlier. And then there are the projects that are generating more headlines than revenue, at least for now: Nest, the Express shopping service intended to take on Amazon, the Wallet epayment feature that maybe one day people will use.
Diversifying away from a reliance on ad revenue is pushing Google into areas that are adding to spending. Headcount rose by nearly 3,000 to 55,069 in the quarter, while R&D spending rose to 16 percent of revenue from 13 percent a year ago. Google said the rise was a one-time bump that doesn’t indicate a future hiring rate. But it was another worrying sign that the bearish tone of the market this month highlighted.
The broader truth is Google’s business is chugging along as it’s been for a while. It has no surprises that could offer a ray of hope for investors worried about the volatility of an overvalued tech sector. What it has is its fingers in a lot of pots - search ads, video ads, digital content, cloud storage, enterprise apps, online shopping, and on and on - that will keep growth steady at the $359 billion company. Google may not save the slumping tech market, but it’s doing a decent job of taking care of its business.