This is a part of a series of articles that covers the biggest names in technology from a dual perspective of an advanced consumer and an investor. So far I have covered Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Next up is Google (NASDAQ: GOOG). This article also appears at The Motley Fool.
In my coverage of Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), I mentioned considering it a retail company as opposed to a tech company. On the opposite end, Google is a real technology company. Their primary business is selling eyeballs on the Internet. To do that, they provide you with the best in class free services on the Internet: the best free search, the best free email, the best free maps, and also the most widely used and, in many eyes, best mobile Operating System – Android.
This is despite significant investments over the years in products and services that go nowhere and giving employees 20% time to work on whatever they wish. Maybe the growth comes thanks to, and not in spite of, those two factors. Just like a venture capital company throwing money at several promising companies in the hopes that one of them will make it big, Google throws it at several projects and employee ideas.
Google’s thought process is also fundamentally different from other large companies. Get the audience for a product first. Money will come later. Now that’s what I said about Amazon, but the difference lies in the fact that Google is not primarily in the business of shipping products to customers.
Looking at Google’s Financial Statements will clearly signify what I mean. They break down their financial statement by: Google.com, Partner Network, “Licensing and Other” and now Motorola. The Licensing and Other makes up a minor component of the business, and the Motorola business is further broken down into Mobile and Home segments. Essentially, other than the Motorola component, Google primarily makes money by either selling ads on its own sites or on partner websites. And it doesn’t break it down by site or service or product which, in my mind, means that it doesn’t matter; eyeballs are eyeballs after all. Google will keep on making its services better and offer more services so it gets more eyeballs and visitors and clicks. That is also the reason that it gives away Android. More services, more products, more eyeballs.
Looking forward, my expectation is for Google to keep growing steadily. The competition in online services like search (Bing), maps (Bing, Nokia, Mapquest), email (Hotmail, Yahoo) etc. might be competitive, but Google is still the king. Yahoo is slowly dying. Their lack of care even for their prime properties shows clearly. Microsoft is constantly playing catch up in online offerings and is yet to make any money on those. Apple is on the warpath with Android and Google, but the maps debacle shows that competing with Google is not easy in online and mobile service offerings. Android has been steadily improving faster than iOS and even though Google makes very little money on it presently, that is bound to improve. There are places where Google is playing catch up, like in social networking with Facebook. However, overall Google is the king of the Internet.
Google also invests in various tangential and unrelated products like making a self driving car, fiber to the home, potentially selling power etc. My hope is that eventually some of these wil be viable, money-making additions to Google’s portfolio of products. I’m sure none of these are money making operations yet, and under normal circumstances companies would have been penalized for non-core efforts like this. Investors do not like “wasting” money after all. But this is Google. Remember: customers first, money later.
I’d say the stock is fairly valued with a TTM P/E of 22, compared to Microsoft at 14.5 and the Vanguard Technology ETF at 15 because of comparatively faster earnings growth expectations. I would also like to issue one warning about Google: dropping margins. So far earnings have grown despite this, and my personal opinion is that the situation will improve once the dust settles on the Motorola acquisition and insane competition in the mobile and cloud space.