Peter Kafka

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Google Points to FX After Revenue Miss; Analysts Harp on CPC

Would you like to read about foreign currency exchange and hedging programs? I know.

But Google would like Wall Street to think a bit about those topics, since it is blaming them for part of its Q4 earnings report shortfall. Google insists it had a great quarter, but both its revenue and earnings numbers came in well below the consensus.

One reason for that, Google says, is fluctuating currency rates: “Had foreign exchange rates remained constant from Q3 2011 through Q4 2011, our revenue in Q4 2011 would have been $239M higher,” the company says. Which means the company would have been much closer to investors’ revenue estimates, for starters.

But analysts on the earnings call didn’t want to spend time talking about FX — they wanted to talk about CPC. That’s “cost-per-click” for Google’s core search ad business, and it dropped 8 percent over the quarter. Google insists that is a number that they shouldn’t obsess about, since it will fluctuate based on changes Google makes to its ad products, and as long as overall revenue is going up, it’s not a problem.

That answer, which they gave over and over, didn’t take, though. And at one point, Larry Page asked, semi-seriously, for analysts to stop asking about CPC. The next question was about CPC.

First look at Google Q4 earnings: $8.13 billion and earnings of $9.50. Wall Street was expecting much more — something like $8.4 billion and $10.50 a share.

Investors are behaving the way you might expect — they’ve dropped the company’s share price by 9 percent, to $581, in after-hours trading. Earlier today, GOOG was trading as high as $640.

“Google had a really strong quarter, ending a great year,” CEO Larry Page says, in a statement that doesn’t seem to acknowledge any weakness or slowdown. He also says Google+, the search giant’s answer to Facebook, is now up to 90 million users.

Google hired more than 1,000 people in the last three months of the year. It now employs 32,467 full-time workers.

If you’re looking for a positive spin on today’s numbers, Google is happy to help. Q4 revenue was up 25 percent over the past year, it notes, and 9 percent more than Q3.

Here, again, is Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney’s guide to interpreting the numbers:

Google streams its earnings call (via YouTube, of course) but in case you’d like to spend your time doing something else, I’ll be listening in and taking live notes here at 4:30 pm ET:

4:30 pm: Good afternoon. Waiting for Google execs to come online to chat about Q4. Meanwhile, Google investors are shoveling shares out the door, and the stock is lurching, down more than 9 percent.

4:31 pm: Call is starting. On the line, the now-usual lineup: Larry Page, CFO Patrick Pichette, product head Susan Wojcicki, sales boss Nikesh Arora.

4:34 pm: Larry talking about “blowing past $10 billion” in revenue. Also the fact that David Beckham engaged in a Google+ “hangout” recently.

Larry talking about last week’s Google+ search revamp, “which I’m really excited about.” “To make a real impact in the world,” we need to shutter some stuff. We’ve turned off 12 projects in the last quarter, so we can double down on things like Chrome, Android, YouTube.

Android: 250 million devices, up 50 million in last quarter. Over 11 billion downloads from Android Market. “Wow.” (That’s from the script.)

“Chrome is on fire, too.” “People thought we were crazy. Who wants another browser?” But we were right!

Display (perhaps you’ve seen our piece in The Wall Street Journal just now). Now on a $5 billion run rate. DoubleClick up 130 percent year over year.

“Very pleased” with ads on YouTube.

That display ad run rate, by the way, is up 2x from October 2010.

4:40 pm: Now CFO Pichette. He’s also very pleased with the quarter. Walking through numbers:

Pichette talking up negative effects of foreign currency moves, which the company also stresses in its pullout slides. We’ll see if investors go for that (curious if analysts feel they have decent visibility into FX for GOOG).

Skipping most of these numbers, since you can get most of it from release and also via supplementary slides.

Pichette warns that Google will keep spending a lot on capex, and that that spend will be “lumpy.”

4:45 pm: Arora to talk about sales. “Strong performance across the portfolio.”

Arora lays in a series of numbers that don’t really register with me, in part because Page and Pichette just mentioned some of them. That display ad number is still quite amazing, though we would of course love to know how that’s split up between “regular” Web ads, YouTube and mobile.

Another shout-out for David Beckham. (Who I assume is still a big international star, even though I’m pretty sure the U.S. has moved on after a brief flirtation.)

An actual “shout-out”! To international business teams.

4:51 pm: Wojcicki, who starts by explaining/defending “Search plus Your World” changes rolled out earlier this month. More personalized results: Pictures friends have taken, article mom had shared, etc. Just like Facebook, which is the point.

Sorry, lost the string here. But really, this is the part that you can always skip during the call: A number-free brochure.

4:57 pm: Q&A:
Q: Did you see a big shift in mobile use over the holiday?
A: Larry: Nikesh, you answer. Nikesh: “Mobile growing by leaps and bounds.” “So yes, we are seeing tremendous usage, and we also saw uptick during holidays,” when people were looking for stuff.

Q: So is CPC decline because more people went through mobile?
A: Nikesh: Susan, you answer that. Susan: Two biggest factors were FX and changes we’ve made, which increase paid clicks — better for everyone — but those clicks may have a lower cost.

Q: What’s in that $5B display number? Same as the $2.5B number from October 2010?
A: Pichette: Yep — take out text, count mobile, count YouTube. Apples to apples.

Q: How did Europe affect numbers? Also, can you give us a sense of “blended TAC rate” for that $5B?
A: Not talking about $5B breakout. On the economy: “Quite a solid Q4 performance.” Separate from FX issues, Europe was “quite healthy, despite the environment.”

Q: YouTube. Can you give us a little more insight there? Are you seeing signs that TV ad budgets are coming to YouTube? Where are YouTube monies coming from?

A: Pichette: “YouTube is doing absolutely terrific.” Larry on YouTube ads: “Tremendously excited about our growth … but it’s not significant compared to the overall video space.” TV advertisers not thinking about it. (Which is the point of the channel strategy.)

Missed Q on Android. Here’s Larry Page’s answer: Early stages of monetization. We do make money on it via ads, and some people are buying apps, too (most downloads are free). “I’m very, very optimistic.”

5:06 pm: Q: More on CPC being down. Question involves “rank order,” so my head hurts.
A: Pichette: Panda search changes will show up next Q. FX changes we can’t do anything about.

[Missed next exchange]

5:09 pm: Q: Another CPC question. Talk more about this, please. Also, your traffic acquisition costs are up. Why?
Pichette. TAC increase is “just a mix issue.” (Mobile mix or partner mix? “Yes,” says Pichette.)
Wojciki: Like I said, FX and changes we made to ad quality are the reason that CPC is down. This quarter, we made a lot of changes. Quarter before, we did a lot, too. Some Q3 changes show up in Q4. “But not any one big one — it was the sum of many other changes.”

Oh, Google earnings call. You are defeating my powers of concentration.

Q: Discussion of hedging program. “Is this working the way you want?” Also, CPC seems to be going the way you want, even though it costs you money. Please talk about that.
A: Pichette gives answer about hedging that is 100 percent jibberjabber to me, because I can barely master a checking account.

Larry Page on CPC: “I do think that CPCs do vary a fair amount, and we’re not surprised by that.” Some changes we make will push it up, others down. Not that big a deal.

Q: Are you happy with the results over the quarter? A: Larry: Like I said, yes.

Wojciki: Instead of focusing on CPC decline, you should note that paid clicks are up 34 percent.
Page: Can the next question not be about CPC?

Q: Nope, it’s a question about CPC.
A: Pichette: Overall, you’re seeing more clicking, and we’re getting a better overall result. If CPC goes down for some reason, “that’s just the nature of experimentation.”

Q: Google+ question for Larry. Please describe how G+ can increase engagement on all properties.
Larry: Engaging with users, really deeply; really, really important. G+ really important part of that effort. Notion of identity really important. With “other big companies that work on social data … we’ve seen a general data to wall that garden off.” We like to partner with third parties. “But in general, companies have been walling that data off,” and we’d love to use it. (Here I would like to see the facial expressions of Dick Costolo and Mark Zuckerberg.)

Q: Do you need more markets for e-commerce play? Thirty markets right now.
A: Wojciki. Yes, we’re good. We’ll expand, but we need to learn from the places we’re in right now.

Q: Last year, in Q4, you talked about big changes “on the quality side.” Talk about that. Also, you hired less people this Q than in other Qs. Trend?
A: We talked about it last year, because it was a big deal. As far as hiring, Larry already said we were growing very fast — Larry interrupts here: “The edge of what was manageable” — so now we’ve slowed.

Last Q: More on Google Wallet, please. Are you going to double down on that? Also on Motorola: Given $12.5B size, won’t that affect “growth and margin profile”? So please talk about mobile philosophy.

A: Wojcicki: Like Larry said, we’re focusing on core products that people use every day, and you use you wallet every day, so it’s a big deal for us. “Very excited about Wallet, and will continue to invest in it.”

Larry: We’ll break out Motorola so you can see the results separately from the rest of the business. We’ve been clear that we will run it as a separate business, and won’t favor it compared to other OEMS (again, so why keep it?). Shows our commitment to Android, and how we want to keep “our freedom to innovate” (Translation: We need those patents.)

Pichette: Remember, for Q1, lots of resets every year at this time. So you won’t be surprised at the end of the quarter.

Alrighty, we’re done. Thanks for sticking around.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work