Google spending cuts profit as mobile competition hits sales

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SAN FRANCISCO (Jan 31): Google Inc. is ramping up spending to invest in new technologies and fend off competition on mobile devices, even as its maturing Web-advertising business posted quarterly profit and sales that fell short of estimates.

Fourth-quarter profit, excluding some items, was $6.88 a share on revenue of $14.5 billion, Google said in a statement Thursday, compared with analysts’ average projections for $7.11 and $14.7 billion. Expenses jumped as Google added more staff and real estate, while currency fluctuations dented revenue.

While Facebook Inc. and other Internet companies are seeking to lure away users and advertisers on tablets and smartphones, Google’s shares were buoyed Friday amid signs of strength in the search provider’s main businesses and optimism that the company will use its cash pile to enter new markets to secure future growth.

“They didn’t do anything that was dramatically inconsistent with what they’ve been doing,” said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group LLC. “You’ve got top-line growth that overall is reasonably solid and you have margin erosion, largely due to diversification.”

Foreign currency fluctuations also weighed on results. Google said total revenue would have been higher by $541 million from the prior quarter without the impact of a stronger dollar, which reduces the amount of overseas income that can be counted back home. Marketers also paid less for mobile ads, driving down the average price of spots by 3 percent in the quarter.

Privacy Policy

Google rose 4.7 percent to $537.55 at the close in New York. The shares declined 5.4 percent last year, compared with an 11 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Google said in a statement Friday that it will change its privacy policy in the U.K., following an investigation by Britain’s watchdog Information Commissioner’s Office. The company is “too vague” about how it uses people’s data and has until June 30 to make the changes, Steve Eckersley, head of enforcement at the ICO, said in a separate statement Friday.

Chief Executive Officer Larry Page stepped up spending, as Google invests in areas outside of the company’s main search-ad business, from high-speed Internet service and driverless cars to digital-payments systems and Web-linked glasses.

Operating expenses, which include engineering and sales staff, reached $6.78 billion in the fourth quarter, a 35 percent increase from a year earlier. That compares with quarterly operating expenses of $5.5 billion at Apple Inc., whose revenue was more than five times greater than Google’s in the same period.

Tough Calls

“In many ways, 2014 was a year of significant investment growth,” Patrick Pichette, chief financial officer, said on a conference call. “We’ll continue to seek a healthy balance between growth and discipline.”

While Pichette said there are many promising areas for future growth, he also pointed to Glass as an example of how the company can also be ready to pull back on a project.

“In those situations where they don’t have the impact we hope for, we do make the tough calls,” the CFO said.

Pichette also said in the conferce call that Google would be willing to “throw a little back” when the company reached a limit on how much it could invest in operations.

“We do review this issue on a regular basis,” Pichette said when asked whether Google was closer to returning cash to shareholders. “I just have nothing to announce today.”

Fourth-quarter net income rose 41 percent to $4.76 billion, or $6.91 a share, from $3.38 billion, or $4.95, a year earlier.

Mobile Impact

Revenue from Google’s own sites, including the key search engine, rose 18 percent to $12.4 billion. Other revenue, which includes the mobile Play app store and hardware such as the Chromecast streaming device, rose 19 percent in the quarter compared with a 50 percent gain in the prior period.

Google’s share of the online-ad market is coming under pressure as more users spend time on smartphones and tablets. The company, which has introduced services encouraging marketers to use its mobile features, saw its share of global mobile-ad revenue decline to 41 percent in 2014, from 47 percent in 2013, while Facebook’s rose to 18 percent from 17 percent, according to EMarketer Inc.

“Mobile is a big concern of investors,” said Robert Peck, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Inc., who has a buy rating on the stock. “What happens to Google’s dominance as it gets more competition as the world goes mobile?”