Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Google Makes AOL’s Turnaround Task Even Harder


Little by little, AOL is offering investors more and more details about what the company will look like after it spins off from Time Warner (TWX).

The problem: The more AOL discloses, the less attractive the company looks.

The most recent nuggets come from a preliminary prospectus Time Warner filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday. Some, but not all, of this has broken out in previous filings or earnings announcements. In any case, it helps to see it all in one place.

The big picture: AOL’s subscription service, which accounts for the “vast majority” of the company’s operating income, is withering away. But advertising revenue, which was supposed to replace that money, has been declining for nearly two years (see tables below; click to enlarge):

aol revs 2004

And here’s a closer look at the ad business and its recent performance:

aol ad revenue

The good news for AOL is that some of this is the result of self-inflicted wounds, and it’s possible to heal some of them. The company’s previous regime seemed to go out of its way to mismanage and dismantle the sales force, for example, and if new CEO Tim Armstrong can rebuild that team, he can make a bit of headway.

The flip side is that some of AOL’s woes may be well beyond Armstrong’s control. Money from a Google (GOOG) search deal, which provided a third of AOL’s $2.1 billion in ad revenue last year–and had been increasing up until this year–is now dropping off, too.

Google dollars fell by $42 million in the most recent quarter, representing more than half the $75 million drop in ad dollars from its AOL Media unit. And Google income fell by $90 million in the last nine months, representing about 40 percent of $197 million decline in that period.

AOL says some of the Google decline stems from its declining subscriber base, which brought down search query volume. The rest is due to lower revenue per search query–that is, Google has changed its algorithm in way that ends up punishing AOL. But Armstrong can’t do a whole lot about either of these variables.

He can try extracting more money from Google, whose search deal expires at the end of next year, or from Microsoft (MSFT), which is trying to gain share any way it can.

Earlier this year, Armstrong turned down a new deal from Google and now says he’ll deal with search after he gets other things in place. But the longer he waits, the less leverage he may have.

AOL shareholders will be paying Armstrong well to figure this out, though. His three-year deal pays him a base of $1 million a year, plus annual cash bonuses of up to $4 million. In addition, he’s getting $20 million worth of stock grants to make up for Google shares he left on the table when he resigned from his old employer. And he’ll get stock options worth as much as 1.5 percent of the company once the spinoff is complete.

That said, AOL will also be paying former AOL CEO Randy Falco, who got tossed out in March. Falco will continue to pull down a $1 million salary through 2010–and he’ll get $7.5 million in bonuses through then as well. Former AOL COO Ron Grant, meanwhile, will earn $750,000 a year, plus another $3.3 million in bonuses.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald