Internet search titan Google startled Wall Street with weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings results, sending the company’s shares down as much as 9% after the numbers were released. The results were driven primarily by an unexpected decline in the fees that Google receives each time a user clicks one of its search ads. That metric, which the company calls “cost-per-click,” declined by 8% compared to one year earlier.
Google said its profits increased by 6% to $2.7 billion, or $8.22 per share, compared to $2.5 billion, or $7.81 per share one year earlier. Revenue increased by 25% to $10.58 billion, but that figure was about $300 million short of analyst estimates. Excluding certain items, Google said it would have earned $9.50 per share, well below the $10.51 that analysts polled by FactSet had been expecting.
In a statement releasing the results, Google CEO Larry Page sought to put a positive spin on the company’s performance. “Google had a really strong quarter ending a great year,” Page said. “Full year revenue was up 29%, and our quarterly revenue blew past the $10 billion mark for the first time.”
Page said he was “super excited” about the growth of three of the company’s flagship products: the Android mobile operating system, Gmail, and Google+, which the company hopes will challenge Facebook’s dominance in the social networking space. Page said that Google+ now has 90 million users worldwide, 60% of whom engage with the service every day. But despite the impressive growth of Google+, it has yet to threaten Facebook, which is closing in on a stunning 1 billion users, a milestone it could hit this summer.
During a post-earnings conference call with analysts, Page described Android’s growth as “quite simply mind-boggling.” He said that 700,000 new Android devices are activated every day. Google CFO Patrick Pichette said that the company’s headcount rose 1,100 in the quarter, bring its total employee base to 32,500. And those employees love working at Google, Page said, noting that the company just topped Fortune’s list of best companies to work for.
Page touted last week’s launch of “Search plus Your World,” which introduced personalized search results drawn from individual user connections on Google’s network. That launch drew criticism from Google’s rivals, most notably Twitter, which accused the search giant of favoring its own results. Some industry observers suggested that Google might be inviting even more antitrust scrutiny with the launch. (The Federal Trade Commission is currently probing the company’s market power.)
For its part, Google responded by pointing out that both Facebook and Twitter have refused to grant Google access to their vast amounts of user data, a point Page reiterated on the conference call. “We’ve seen a general trend to wall that data off and not make it very available,” Page said, “but we’d love to be able to use more of it.”